July is National Park and Recreation Month

Orange Hawkweed, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

Orange Hawkweed, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

Somehow I missed June. It slipped right by. The first topic I had intended to focus on in June was going to be the weather, which seemed to be pretty unusual almost everywhere. Certainly here in Juneau it was more beautiful than we have come to expect. Then, an invasive species distracted me … in my own yard! I thought I’d write about invasive species, and I promise that I will write more on invasive plants later this month. I actually spent a couple of Saturdays trying to gain some ground against the orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum) that has moved into my yard and many other locations around Juneau. I think the persistent little plants are still winning … more on invasive plants and the weather in another blog.

July is National Park and Recreation Month. I hope each of you out there will help me celebrate by getting out, getting active and getting healthier! Take your friends and families along too. National Park and Recreation Month has been officially celebrated in July since 1985. Not only does this make July special this particular July is VERY special.

In case you haven’t checked out a calendar there are 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays in July! This hasn’t happened before in any of our lifetimes. In fact, it only happens once every 823 years . . . so don’t expect to see it happen again! Another interesting fact about this year (2011) is that if you take the last two digits of the year you were born and add the age you will be this year (before the end of 2011) the result will be 111 for everyone in the world. How does that work?

4th of July Fireworks, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2005 Linda Kruger Library

4th of July Fireworks, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2005 Linda Kruger Library

We will be celebrating the fourth with fireworks (weather permitting) at 11:59 on July 3, becoming the first event on July 4th. The days are so long and it is light so late into the evening that it has to be that late to be dark enough to really see them. Unfortunately sometimes clouds do get in the way and if that happens the event is delayed for a day or two. Later, during daylight hours of July 4th there are not one but two parades in recognition of the earlier days when Douglas and Juneau were two separate cities. Juneau’s parade starts first at 11:00 AM followed by the Douglas parade at 2:00 PM. That leaves enough time for parade entrants and spectators to get from one parade venue to the other. Many of the floats and vehicle entries participate in both parades, and even some of the marching groups make their way from Juneau across the bridge and into Douglas. The Douglas parade is known for its kids on decorated bicycles and other kinds of kid entries … and both parades are know for flying candy! I dare anyone to go home without candy in his or her pockets or without sampling some of it on the spot! (Trust me I’ve tried and I’ve failed year after year ….)

4th of July Parade, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2006 Linda Kruger

4th of July Parade, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2006 Linda Kruger

At 1:30 the 2-mile fun run starts at the base of the bridge on the Douglas Island side and runners run into downtown Douglas, with finishers leading the parade into town. There is a sandcastle building competition on the beach, and after the parade there are field events for people of all ages including 10 to 60-yard dashes, 3-legged races, sack races and other fun events. All participants receive $1. (No one gets rich but it is fun!) There is a deep-pit beef barbeque (and a variety of other food booths), soapbox race finals, pony rides, a dog frisbee contest, a watermelon eating contest and live music and dancing. In other words, there is fun for all. We often walk the two miles from our house to Douglas and leave our car at home. Unfortunately again this year the weatherman is calling for showers. Here in Southeast Alaska we are used to wet weather. Folks pull on their Xtratuf rubber boots and rain jackets and head out to enjoy the festivities in spite of the weather. You’ll see the mayor, legislators, even the governor out in Xtratufs.

4th of July Sandcastle Building, Douglas, Alaska :: (c) 2006 Linda Kruger

4th of July Sandcastle Building, Douglas, Alaska :: (c) 2006 Linda Kruger

Circling back to our celebration of National Park and Recreation Month, following the parades, many of the days fun events, the sandcastle competition, field events, concert and food booths take place in Savikko Park, managed by the City and Borough of Juneau Parks and Recreation Department. In Juneau we are fortunate to have a variety of parks and trails managed by the City and Borough, Alaska State Parks, and the US Forest Service. Residents and visitors alike will be enjoying a variety of activities—some are organized like the 4th of July events at Savikko Park and others are informal family and friend events—at parks facilities around the borough. Some will walk, hike or bike, others will arrive by car, and some will travel by kayak or boat.

What is your favorite 4th of July memory? How will you get out and experience a park or trail? Think about how to celebrate National Park and Recreation Month. Please take a moment to share your favorite park or trail experience.

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The West’s Silent Spaces

By Stephanie Malin

Having just completed my dissertation, I feel a little lost. Strange, I know. I longed for this day while I sat staring at mounds of data, a computer screen, and the ticking clock. I am certainly doing more cleaning, organizing, and cooking than I thought humanly possible, and my work out routine is back to normal. Thinking back on the writing process, though, I’ve realized that one of the things that got me through the process – aside from my patient husband, insightful major professor, and encouraging parents and family – was the southern Utah landscape.

In the middle of writing ‘The Beast’ (as I affectionately termed my dissertation), my husband and I celebrated our tenth dating anniversary. Though I knew taking a break might be risky in terms of finishing on schedule, I also knew Matt and I needed to take time to enjoy the milestone. Thus, we decided to head down to one of our favorite haunts in southern Utah – and indeed, one of our favorite places in general – Capitol Reef National Park. Given our love of petroglyphs and anything archaeological, we decided we would also hit Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery. Looking back on this trip from a place of new-found calm, I now know that not only did these silent spaces help Matt and I recognize our anniversary; the red rocks, towering cliffs, and ancient rock art also inspired me to get through one of the most challenging periods of my academic training.

On the way to Capitol Reef, we first stopped at Horseshoe Canyon to walk the trail that ends with the Great Gallery. As you may know, the journey to Great Gallery is as much the destination as the ancient rock art itself; once off the highway, we took off down the 32-mile dirt road. This was our second trip to this surreal place, and we knew the road has unpredictable, shifting sand dunes, washboards that shake your car violently, and a sense of isolation and adventure unparalleled even in remote southern Utah. As we bounced down the road and made it to the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, we stepped out into a wind storm, sand stinging our faces and eyes. Descending down the cliff side, we met up with the roughly-marked path winding along the canyon bottom, towering tan cliffs on either side. With no one else in sight and four panels of rock art to observe, we were in heaven.

Once we reached Great Gallery, however, each of us had to stop, sit, and stare. You can feel this place’s special energy and silence as soon as you round the last bend before the Gallery appears, ghostly dark red and brown figures looming high above you, six-foot tall beings watching you from a different time or planet. The figures look like large mummies or elaborate warriors, though trying to identify them or attach meaning distracts from their mystical quality. So we sat there in silence. Taking it in. Breathing deeply. And wondering to ourselves what inspired people thousands of years ago to create these magical, mysterious images. All the anxiety of writing a dissertation, of an impending move, of all the looming uncertainty were whisked away in that moment of silent desert stillness.

Once in Capitol Reef, after a bumpy drive back to the main road, we completed our customary hikes and delicious, gourmet dinners at Rim Rock Restaurant. This time, though, in honor of the special occasion, we did something we never have – we hired a local guide to take us on a backcountry tour of Cathedral Valley, where you can see the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Our guide arrived early in the morning, in a weathered Land Rover, a tall, stoic, reserved cowboy named Brian. He forded a river for us, taking us deep into the backcountry on a 60-mile loop. Brian described the landscape as he saw it, giving us insights into the park that we never had before, and amused Matt and I with stories of local residents and his own escapades in the area over the years. Once we arrived at Cathedral Valley, we knew we had reached another special, silent place. The sun peeked out, illuminating the Temples and accentuating their brilliant red. Even in the whipping wind, I took a deep breath and felt the silence, surrounding me for miles and miles. Any lingering worry slipped away, and I allowed myself to just feel connected to the landscape – at once alien and deeply comforting.

On our drive out of the area, I felt refreshed, full of life and love, and ready to tackle the long haul ahead. Without these silent spaces and their soothing energy captured in my imagination, I doubted I could handle the task. With them clear in my mind, though, I could push through the stress, self-doubt, and worry and complete the daunting task ahead.

The West is full of these silent spaces, the spaces that bring peace, encourage introspection, and cultivate self-awareness. What are yours? Please share!

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and Rural Western Communities – The Unexpected Connection

By Stephanie A. Malin

The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan have captured international attention, which now lingers on the nation as Japan struggles to control and contain repeated disasters and tense moments at its six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.   I focus on this series of events for this month’s blog because these nuclear accidents may have unexpected impacts on economies in remote rural pockets of the American West.

Even as the Fukushima Daiichi workers struggle through tense moments, in southwestern Colorado, Energy Fuels’ Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill (PR Mill) has been given approval by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPH&E) to receive and process radioactive materials.  Local communities like Nucla and Naturita are populated with many people in vocal support of the mill for the jobs it will likely provide, with the most vocal being residents possessing fond memories of the last uranium booms.  Though a few licenses must still be acquired before construction can begin, the CDPH&E’s approval in January of the PR Mill holds significance and substantive meaning, given Colorado’s status as an Agreement State in which state-level institutions such as the CDPH&E give final approval on the mill equivalent to that granted by the federal-level Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Company leaders and local residents remain confident that ground will be broken by 2012 and that the mill will provide at least 65 full-time, benefitted jobs.  This assurance remains, despite a lawsuit brought against the CDPH&E and Energy Fuels by regional environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA).

Politically, state-level approval of this mill signals that perhaps US sentiments regarding nuclear power have shifted for the first time since the late 1970s.  Since that time – when the Three Mile Island incident left Americans largely skeptical of siting new nuclear facilities anywhere near their own communities – not a single nuclear reactor has been built or waste repository location approved.  Even the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, if constructed, will be the first uranium mill built since the end of the Cold War.  Residents of communities near the mill that I have interviewed and surveyed see the mill as one of the best chances for the area to reclaim its economic and cultural glory days as a uranium production powerhouse.

Current events at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant may, however, pose a palpable threat to this possible local-level economic resurgence; a bigger ‘threat’ than even the hotly-contested SMA.   As an international audience watches radioactive steam releases, explosions, and a public terrified of radiation exposure, the uranium market has been dealing with its own unpredictability (eg., see http://www.cbc.ca/fp/story/2011/03/16/4451889.html).  Uranium prices and worldwide demand have halted as the Fukushima Daiichi drama unfolds.  China, one significant source of demand for processed uranium – even from the PR Mill – has announced it will slow down its plans for nuclear expansion in the country.  With about 77 nuclear reactors either in the planning or construction phases, even a temporary moratorium on China’s nuclear reactors deeply impacts the global uranium market.  For example, a large Canadian uranium corporation – Uranium One, Inc. – was supposed to join with another Russian-owned uranium corporation, ARMZ, to take over another resources firm.  However, that deal has been halted by ARMZ.  Last week, the price of uranium also fell from about US$66 to US$55.  If prices for it fall below US$40, uranium becomes much less profitable to mine and process, even for experienced outfits like Energy Fuels in southwestern Colorado.

It remains to be seen if this market change is temporary, or if the Fukushima Daiichi disaster will have the same sort of impact on construction of nuclear-related facilities as did Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.   As rural Westerners in communities like those around the proposed PR Mill watch and pray for Japanese well-being and safety, I wonder if they also think a little of their own futures and well-being.  It may be that the fate of Fukushima Daiichi helps decide the fate of rural uranium communities where recession has been reality since the early 1980s.

Social Anthropology and Rural Economic Development

By Ed Meyer

For more than three decades, I’ve made a conscious effort to stay far away from the divisive diatribes so typical of arguments regarding public lands and the environment. When I’ve been ambushed in a meeting and forced to listen to the well-practiced public lands rhetoric repeated for the thousandth time, an image comes to my mind. It’s an image of the Dugum Dani warriors from the New Guinea highlands that I recall from the University Utah where I was studying social anthropology.

Keep in mind that I was taking anthropology classes thirty years ago so my memories are blurred by time, but here’s how I remember films I watched back when you still had to wind film onto projectors. It seemed like the women did all the work in the Dugum Dani villages. They raised sweet potatoes and tended pigs while the men got ready to go to “war”.  Since the men didn’t wear anything except a “koteka” (look it up for yourself at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koteka because I’m not going there), preparations seemed to most involve a lot of chest thumping and a little face painting. However, in the late morning or early afternoon, the men would go to a canyon where they yelled at men from another tribe and shot arrows that never seemed to hit anything. The technical term for this is “ritual small-scale warfare and here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

Ritual small-scale warfare between rival villages is integral to traditional Dani culture, with much time spent preparing weapons, engaging in both mock and real battle, and treating any resulting injuries. Typically the emphasis in battle is to insult the enemy and wound or kill token victims, as opposed to capturing territory or property or vanquishing the enemy village.

If you are interested in learning more about the Dugum Dani, you may want to visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dugum_Dani.  As an aside, the ritual battles I saw in college in 1972 have become much more serious as the primate Dugum Dani have come in contact with the outside world and now are being sold high powered rifles.

I’ve certainly circumnavigated around my point which is that pretty much everyone embroiled in the battle over public lands remind me of the Dugum Dani warriors mocking one another, insulting the “enemy”, rattling arrows and firing ineffective volleys at one another.  To me it has always seemed so wasteful and counterproductive. So I chose another route that focused directly on trying to help people at the community level.

(Pictured: Abraham Maslow)

But now I’m retired and want to propose something that was not politically appropriate when I was a state employee. Before I make my proposal, I want to go back to my anthropology training and dredge up from my ancient lessons the theories of a guy named Abraham Maslow. He proposed something now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation (I expect all of you sociology students are groaning about now). Mr. Maslow was a pretty boring guy so let me summarize how his concept relates to rural America and the public lands debacle.

Maslow said that people need to take care of a whole host of needs before they will focus on an area he called “self actualization”. In terms of rural America, you have to make sure you provide food and shelter for yourself and your family before you will be willing to consider more lofty goals like protecting the environment. So when you are forced to give up a job in a sawmill or a mine that pays a family-sustaining wage in exchange for turning bed sheets in a motel, you won’t be receptive to ideas like protecting wilderness areas. If you want be really bored, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.

So here, based on Maslow, is my idea and my challenge to the environmental community. Rural people will never embrace protection of the environment and tying up public lands until they have family sustaining jobs. So you can fight them until hell freezes over. You can keep filing lawsuits draining your budgets and those of people living in rural America or you can invest in an alternative strategy. If you don’t want rural people to continue their efforts to obtain family sustaining, natural resource-based jobs, then you need to find a way to substitute environmentally sensitive jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

Think about it. Thousands of companies professing to be environmentally conscious are contributing to environmental movements. What if instead of doing this they invested in rural communities adjacent to public lands by providing “clean jobs”.  What this would entail is a willingness to sustain a loss for a few years as the new rural employees are trained and gain experience. In some cases, there might even be an ongoing loss since many rural communities are isolated, but the growth of information-based jobs should counterbalance the cost of isolation. It is my experience that, once a rural person’s family needs are addressed, they are more willing to consider environmental partnership to address mutual needs.

Of course, this isn’t likely to happen. Environmental organizations don’t sustain themselves by solving environmental problems. Rather, it’s in their interests to sustain problems for generations if possible.  But prove me wrong. If you have an idea about an environmentally clean company who wants to provide jobs next to sensitive public lands, call me in Kanab. My name is Ed Meyer and my number is in the phone book. Next month I’ll let you know how many calls I’ve received.

Sociology of Environment – Not Your Normal College Course

I love teaching college students.  Absolutely adore it.  Mid-January is here, and for me this means a new academic semester has begun and teaching resumes.  This time around, I have the pleasure of teaching Sociology of Environment and Natural Resources.  My 40-some students and I discuss some of the potential reasons behind environmental degradation – overpopulation, overconsumption, global production systems.  We also spend a quarter of the class learning about and analyzing global environmental justice case studies.  After units on climate change, energy policy, and agricultural systems, the end of the course focuses on potential solutions and student projects.

Having taught this course before, I’ve learned the basic rhythms of a course wherein students think not just about an abstract subject matter but something different, something bigger and yet more personal.  Instead of teaching statistics, for example, I’m asking them to question their orientation to the natural world.  Thus, this is one of the few courses in which students feel compelled to analyze their behavior and grapple with whether those behaviors should change.  More than any other course I’ve taught, this one is the most challenging and rewarding.  Challenging because, especially at this particular university, I encounter many students who are quite conservative and think of environmentalism as a strictly political issue (and, at that, a liberal one of which they want no part).  At the same time, teaching this class generates tangible rewards; when worldview barriers are overcome, breakthroughs for students can be life-altering.   About 30 of the 40 students will think about what they read and perhaps reduce their consumption temporarily or think about driving less and biking more.  But in a smaller portion of the class, I can watch deep-seated philosophical changes take place, something I have yet to experience in other classes of mine like Social Statistics or Social Psychology.

A vivid example comes to mind.  One student in the last session of this course began the semester with his head firmly planted on the desk.  He showed up for class most days, but within about ten minutes his head would be buried in his crooked arm.  Yes, he was that student that, for instructors, creates worry and unease, even when the rest of the class may give you their undivided attention. Despite my gentle urging, this behavior continued on through February and into March.  In March, we began reading about environmental justice cases around the world.  Stories of communities touched by toxic contamination from extraction activities and production facilities.  Many times, people in affected communities will notice their contamination, resultant illnesses or ailments, and begin long-term grassroots activism to fight the extraction, the facility, or at least get basic answers for their families and neighbors.

These stories, in turns out, brought my sleepy student back to life.  During those class periods, and for most of them that followed, this particular student transformed before my eyes.  He became alert, engaged, and inquisitive, often staying after class to ask questions or discuss a particular case study.  Through those conversations, I learned this student was from a town in Utah where coal mining was the main economic activity.  He described being raised in a community where a strange silver dust covered most cars, homes, and park equipment.  He also described a debilitating condition he had, in which the discs of his spine were being slowly crushed, for reasons no doctors has been able to explain.  He told me that many of his neighbors and family members suffered from similar and other ailments.  Apparently, the coal processing plant near his home discharged methyl mercury, and people in his community noticed widespread health problems that many residents, according to my student, saw as related to coal processing.  The case studies we were reading and the class discussions my student shared with peers moved him so deeply because they seemed to describe his own experiences as they unfurled.  He encouraged his mother to join with some of her neighbors to conduct a health study and get access to grant monies for further research, and by the time the class ended, the Utah Department of Health was looking into the local claims of illness and chronic conditions.  Any concrete outcome may take many years, but the beginning seems encouraging.

While events such as these are certainly not common, I begin each semester with the hope that Sociology of Environment will change my students’ perspectives on the natural world.  At the very least, I hope it transforms environmentalism from a political issue into a deeply personal and broadly human issue for them.  From my experience, this happens the most fluidly and meaningfully in a classroom where we can all interact and where organic discussions can develop (this may even be a topic for a future blog).  Though each class has its distinct personality, here’s to hoping that this semester sparks critical thinking and a new environmental ethic for my students.  I will keep you posted….

Energy Regulations and Rural Communities

As I currently live, eat, and breathe this thing called a dissertation, you seem to be regularly subjected to thoughts and tangents about it as well.  I appreciate you indulging me, particularly because so many of you have some very real stake in rural communities and their social, economic, and environmental well-being and development.   I view this blog, in part, as a unique opportunity to share my experiences with you and, if luck allows, learn from your own stories and histories in the field and academy.

This includes your experiences with perceptions of regulations and their social repercussions in the rural West.  Yes, I uttered that dreaded word – regulations.  This word has endless connotations, the tone of which typically depends upon one’s political persuasion, occupation, or even the region of the country in which one lives.  Out West, with our many public lands and extraction-based industries, it seems the word can inspire more ambivalence than in other regions.  At least, I find this to be the case in the area of Colorado where I’m conducting my research – Montrose County, in southwestern Colorado.  As many of you know, this part of the state is famous for its unparalleled vistas, rugged terrain, and isolated pockets of people often eeking out a living.  Many times, people in these Western communities weather boom-and-bust economies based on coal, natural gas, or other natural resources and, in bust times, must use their ingenuity and tight-knit relationships with others to make a living from month to month.  This appears to be the case particularly over the last couple years, as the rest of the nation suffers under the weight of a seemingly permanent economic recession.  In these communities, I’m finding that when it comes to uranium mining and milling, there emerge a couple distinct narratives regarding related regulations and, importantly, affiliated technologies.

Specifically, as I talk to area residents, there have emerged two distinct groups emerge, with drastically different worldviews.   One camp – mainly in the communities immediately surrounding the proposed uranium mill site – supports the mill’s construction, has fierce faith in the mill’s ability to create jobs and reinvigorate local economies, AND has abundant faith in regulations and the enforcement capabilities of Energy Fuels, Inc. and various state agencies.  The other ‘camp’ – found mainly in communities further away from the proposed mill site in former mining towns-turned tourist meccas like Telluride – oppose the mill’s construction, contest its job-creating abilities, and voice deep skepticism about health, safety, and environmental regulations and their enforcement.

I imagine that many of you have seen similar divisiveness emerge in rural communities in which you’ve worked, studied and perhaps in which you’ve lived.   I find myself selfishly hoping that you have been as perplexed and divided yourselves as I have been in attempting to analyze the social and other outcomes of these two worldviews colliding.  As a “good researcher,” I strive to genuinely see and experience both worldviews as I work to understand these two camps and what their positions may mean for land-use and energy policy.  The first camp argues that the mill’s corporate owners will need to fulfill their health and safety obligations as they will be under intense public scrutiny, and will have elite technology with which to accomplish this task.  I can see the legitimacy of this argument.  Equally compelling, however, the second camp points to high-profile extraction cases in which regulations and self-monitoring seem to have failed – with the recent BP Deep Horizon oil spill the most frequently-mentioned case.

What have your experiences have been in the field, particularly if you’ve worked in rural communities enmeshed in extraction- or natural resource-based economies?  Where states are charged with overseeing most regulations – as is the case with Colorado, an Agreement State, and uranium and nuclear commodity regulations – I wonder if we see different outcomes or public perceptions than we do in states where federal agencies retain that ultimate role.  I also wonder if we find that this varies with type of ownership of such industries, whether they are public or private.  What have your experiences been?  What are your observations of on-the-ground regulatory enforcement?

Poised to reshape our energy policy, the west’s rural communities often, and again, become the stage on which land-use, environmental and economic justice battles are fought.  What this means in terms of energy policy, rural community well-being, and related social movements remains to be seen, of course.  But we find ourselves in a unique position, as scholars and practitioners of rural development, to begin recording this energy transition.  I invite you to share your experiences of community-level social movements, response to regulations, or other land-use issues.