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elizabeth kolbert on sex and the single rhino

A Survival Guide for the Planet • published by the natural resources defense council

too much pig

How huge Factory Farms Are Poisoning iowa’s drinking water By Ted Genoways

PLUS How To Recycle a Life by Lynell George energy feud in the rockies by George Black

spring 2014 w w


Onearth magazine

volume 36 number 1 spring 2014


36 The Redeemers by Lynell George

d e p art m ents cover story


In an L.A. warehouse, workers


The Everglades’ ecosystem of extremes can be intimidating to visitors. Don’t let it keep you away.

harvest the valuable material inside our old, discarded elec-


tronics, for an employer who

Texas fires a warning shot in the U.S. battle for bullet-train bragging rights. Plus: a snow-loving scientist has some cold, hard truths to share.

believes in second chances for everything—and everyone.

Local communities tend to

Q&A Ted Genoways talks to Slow Money founder Woody Tasch, whose big idea is to encourage the food industry to think smaller.

get rattled when big energy

24 the synthesist

40 The Great Divide by George Black

by Kim Tingley Sometimes the path to scientific discovery is marked by clear signs. And sometimes we don’t even know we’re on the path until the very end.

shows up in small places— especially when the places are as beautiful as Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front.

26 think again

51 Sex and the Single Rhino

by Elizabeth Kolbert

Only about 100 Sumatran rhinos survive in the world. When a species gets that close

Crammed into overcrowded barns all across the state of Iowa, millions of pigs are destined for slaughter. No, it’s not just because we love bacon: it’s to feed China’s appetite for Spam.

to extinction, it may be time to take desperate measures, like mating brother with sister.

ins i de n rdc

10 view from nrdc by Frances Beinecke

12 the deans list by Bob Deans Mary Anne Andrei

8 From the Editor

60 dispatches

High-energy skylines, attacking asthma at its source, and more.

Hog Wild in Iowa by Ted Genoways

One thing we know about pigs is that they generate an awful lot of manure. To service industrial agriculture, farmers grow more corn, which feeds more pigs, which produce more manure, which fertilizes more fields, which produce more corn, which... Sound insane? It is, especially because it’s also creating a public health crisis.

Cover: Christophe Lehenaff/Photononstop/Getty

by Bruce Stutz Invasive earthworms can’t wriggle their way out of the blame for destroying our forest topsoil.

56 reviews

For most of the world’s population, climate change means nothing but trouble. For a few, it means laughing all the way to the bank.

64 open space

by Julene Bair The family farm creates a deep attachment to the land. But it can also lead to a guilty conscience.

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Read the digital edition of the magazine on your computer, e-reader, or tablet device, and access complete back issues at

Spring 2014

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onearth (issn 1537-4246) (volume 36, number 1) is published quarterly by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 40 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011, and printed by The Lane Press, South Burlington, Vermont. Newsstand circulation through Disticor Magazine Distribution Services; Copyright 2014 by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Periodical postage paid at New York and at additional mailing offices. NRDC Membership dues $15 annually. onearth is available to all members of NRDC upon request. Library subscription $8, one year; $15, two years; $22, three years. Single copies $5. To e-mail a change of address: postmaster: Send address changes to onearth, 40 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011.


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volume 36

number 1

spring 2014


web exclusives Get our newsletter

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Howls of Protest A wildlife mystery once confined to scientific journals now has serious stakes for the future of wolves: did two distinct species prowl North America’s ancient forests? A few scientists think so, though most remain unconvinced. Regardless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used the unproven theory to justify removing gray wolves from the endangered species list. MICHELLE NIJHUIS probes the biological brouhaha. on the web:


on twitter: @nijhuism


top: Tim Fitzharris/ Getty Images: Right: Matthew Pugliese; far right: Dennis Lee

n You won’t believe the crap (literally!) that farmers feed to cattle n China to U.S.: we don’t want your stinking trash

M ATERI AL WOR LD From plastics to pesticides, man-made products pervade our world—and our bodies. SUSAN FREINKEL’s new column explores what we make and how it’s remaking us. on the web: on twitter: @SusanFreinkel

n Replacing screen time with mud pies and stick sculptures n T h a n k s , c l i m a t e change—now Lake Erie is a lot less Great n Can civilization and salmon coexist? Dam good question

blogs WTF , WEATHER? Remember winter before the polar vortex and frost quakes? Catch up with all the crazy new weather climate change is throwing our way, no matter the season. on the web:

Meet the Editor

Good journalists often start out as sharp observers, and managing editor SUSAN COSIER has spent many years gazing on nature’s wonders. Whether as a lab researcher studying ancient shells or as a disaster-relief worker surveying storm damage, she’s long had an eye for what makes things work. on the web: on twitter: @susancosier

spring 2014

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contributors elizabeth kolbert (“Sex and the Single Rhino,” p. 51) is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (Bloomsbury USA). Her latest book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, has just been published by Henry Holt. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Michael hanson (“The Great Divide,” p. 40) is an award-winning photographer based in Seattle whose work has been featured in the New York Times, Outside, and National Geographic Traveler, among other publications. Since traveling to northern Montana for this assignment, he has begun a series of personal projects in the area.

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brian adams (“The Snowman Cometh,” p. 21) is a freelance photographer based in Anchorage. His work documenting everyday life in native Alaskan villages has been showcased in galleries across the United States. His first book of photography, I Am Alaskan, was published in October 2013 by the University of Alaska Press.

our paper and printing onearth is committed to environmentally sound publishing practices. Our text stock contains a minimum of 30 percent postconsumer waste and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that the world’s forests are sustainably managed. Our cover stock contains a minimum of 10 percent postconsumer waste.

kolbert: Barry Goldstein; GEORGE: kirk mckoy; adams: ash adams

Lynell George (“The Redeemers,” p. 36) is a journalist specializing in social issues and the arts. A former staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, she is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Anchor). In 2013 she was named a Getty/Annenberg Arts Journalism Fellow.

Spring Books

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MARK E. HAUBER Edited by John Bates and Barbara Becker A stunning guide to eggs from six hundred bird species from around the world, The Book of Eggs pairs photographs that reproduce each egg in full color and at actual size with descriptions, distribution maps, and fascinating facts to pique the curiosity of all bird lovers. Cloth $55.00

WALDEN WARMING Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods

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The University of Chicago Press

editor’s letter


A SERIOUS CASE OF HOG WASH n our cover story, “Hog Wild,” editor-at-large TED GENOWAYS reveals

D oug l as S . b arasch

8 onearth

spring 2014

Jeff weiner

that pig factories in Iowa are so out of control that they’re actually endangering the state’s supply of drinking water. Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, can confine a thousand or more pigs in a single location. Those pigs generate enormous amounts of manure, which then gets spread onto fields as fertilizer. From the point of view of Brad Freking, the CEO of New Fashion Pork (whose operation Genoways was able to visit), this makes perfect sense: “Here’s my farm, and I put my pig barn on my farm and then I take the organic nutrients out of that pig and put it on the farm to grow the corn to feed the pig. It’s very sustainable.” Sounds good—except for the fact that large quantities of this waste end The state agencies that ought to be up running off overplanted, eroded, and providing oversight of the industry have drought-hardened fields and entering nearby rivers. As a result, Iowa’s water been seriously weakened by politicians supply contains dangerously high levwho share deep ties to Big Ag els of nitrates and E. coli bacteria. Hog manure is also a worrisome source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of all the drugs that are fed to factory-farmed animals to promote growth and prevent disease arising from their unsanitary living conditions. Another thing Genoways learned is that most of New Fashion Pork’s pigs are being raised to produce… Spam. And the fastest growing market for Spam is… China. So let’s review: pig farming in Iowa is threatening the state’s drinking water in order to send Spam to China. And to make matters worse, the very state agencies that ought to be providing regulatory oversight of the pork industry have been seriously weakened by politicians who share deep ties to Big Ag. One aspect of Genoways’s reporting struck us as highly curious: the people at New Fashion Pork weren’t secretive about their operations, and in fact cheerfully provided plant tours and interviews with top brass. The reason is that they are proud of their facilities and must have believed that even a journalist as skeptical and knowledgeable as Genoways (who is finishing up a book on Hormel Foods for HarperCollins, titled The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food) would have no choice but to see the CAFOs as anything other than highly efficient, technologically state-of-the-art, and optimally managed. That suggests there’s a big gap between Freking’s definition of “sustainable” and that of other interested parties—such as the scientists at the Des Moines Water Works, whose job is to ensure a safe water supply, and farmers who live near existing and proposed CAFOs. Or maybe Freking doesn’t have a different understanding of the facts, just a different set of priorities. And while he insists that he is sensitive to community concerns about the environment—“You understand the watersheds, and you just stay out them,” he tells Genoways at one point—the people of Iowa, not to mention the millions of others who live downstream from our factory farms, may be starting to feel differently.


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view from NRDC how Knowledge can help power our cities’ buildings apartment buildings that make up your nearest city skyline? These structures are turning into engines of energy efficiency and climate action. This is already true in New York, my hometown, and also in 10 other cities where the City Energy Project, launched in January by NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation, is helping vibrant metropolises use their skylines to slash electricity consumption and cut pollution. (Also see our story “A Smarter Skyline, Illuminated,” on page 60.) Focusing on buildings can have a big impact: they account for more than half of all carbon emissions in most U.S. cities. In Chicago, for instance, buildings contribute 71 percent of the city’s carbon pollution; in Salt Lake City, 74 percent. Yet buildings waste a significant amount of energy. The City Energy Project is designed to make it easier for businesses and civic leaders to embrace available solutions to vastly increase efficiency. Improvements such as smarter lighting and more sophisticated heating and air-conditioning systems can make cities healthier and more resilient—and save residents and businesses in these cities nearly $1 billion annually on energy bills. From Orlando to Denver, Houston to Boston, people will benefit from lower bills, cleaner Buildings account for over half of air, and new jobs. all carbon emissions in most U.S. cities. We will all benefit from fighting climate change. I just returned In Chicago, they contribute 71 percent; from California, which had its driin Salt Lake City, 74 percent. est year on record in 2013. The drought isn’t letting up, and people are bracing for steep costs; the 2009 drought, for instance, caused $340 million in lost agricultural revenue in the San Joaquin Valley alone. Extreme drought, storms, and heat waves are on the rise in our communities. To defuse this threat, we must slash carbon pollution and dramatically expand clean energy options such as efficiency measures and wind and solar power. President Obama has helped jump-start this effort on a national level by creating fuel efficiency standards that will cut carbon pollution from new cars in half by 2025. And in June, he is expected to propose the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants—our country’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. One of the cheapest and most effective ways to limit carbon emissions from power plants is for cities and states to expand their efficiency measures. And even that is only the beginning. If we want to shield our children from supercharged weather, we need to keep pushing for bigger, more transformative climate solutions, both at the local level and in Washington. But politicians will adopt these clean energy policies only if Americans demand them, so please: add your voice to the growing groundswell. Tell your representatives to support clean energy incentives and strong carbon limits for power plants. Let a local commitment to cleaner air and a stable climate be a part of your hometown pride.

francEs beinecke, President

1 0 onearth

spring 2014

Matt Greenslade/


ave you looked lately at the collection of office towers and

Create Your Own Lasting Legacy

Photo: Š Joseph Van Os

You can create a lasting environmental legacy by including NRDC in your estate plans. A gift through your will, trust, retirement plan or life insurance plan will help preserve our magnificent natural heritage for generations to come.

For information on how to include NRDC in your estate plans or to let us know you’ve already done so, please contact Michelle Quinones, Lead Specialist, Gift Planning, at 212-727-4552 or email her at See the back cover to learn about the Legacy Challenge!

the deans list

b y b o b d e ans

BP TAUGHT US some TOUGH LESSONS The independent commission President Obama created to examine the spill called on oil and gas companies to set up since the BP blowout killed 11 workers, dumped 170 million gal- a fully independent safety institute, just as the nuclear power lons of toxic crude oil into the Gulf industry did after the Three Mile Island accident. Instead, of Mexico, and threw tens of thou- the industry has established the Center for Offshore Safety, which operates under the auspices of the American Petrosands of watermen out of work. We watched in horror as crude leum Institute, the industry’s lobbying association. Shouldn’t oil migrated through fertile waters the industry set up a safety institute whose single mission in plumes the size of Manhattan, is to develop a culture that puts safety first? Congress has been the real laggard. It has done nothing poisoning habitat for tuna, turtles, dolphins, and whales. It settled like a deadly carpet over to make offshore drilling any safer today than it was on coral reefs and the ocean floor. It coated more than 1,000 the day of the BP blowout. Congress needs to enshrine miles of coastline, damaging wetlands, estuaries, and tidal the president’s administrative changes into federal law, so flats. The region, and the people who live and work there, they can’t be reversed with the stroke of a pen by a future administration. And it needs to raise the $75 million liability have yet to fully recover. We’ve seen some changes since then. The Obama admin- limit for spill damages, which is absurdly low. BP—which has laid out more istration reorganized than $30 billion, and the Department of the We can’t afford a BP-like disaster counting, in cleanInterior’s widely critiin Arctic seas choked with ice eight up and settlement cized Mineral Manmonths of the year and where gale-force costs—opted to go agement Service, beyond what the law breaking it up into winds and 20-foot waves make a spill required. Other comthe Bureau of Ocean cleanup impossible panies might not. Energy Management, And, as a nation, to oversee oil and gas leases in federal waters, and the Bureau of Safety and En- we need to stop exposing more and more of our oceans vironmental Enforcement, to protect workers, waters, and to the risks of offshore fossil fuel production. We should wildlife. In October 2012, the BSEE put in place new rules start by putting our Arctic waters off-limits to drilling. We aimed at improving the reliability of critical safety equip- can’t afford a BP-like disaster in seas that are choked with ment and the design and integrity of offshore wells. The ice eight months of the year and where gale-force winds rules require third-party inspections of offshore drilling rigs, and 20-foot waves make exploration hazardous and spill production platforms, and related equipment—replacing cleanup impossible. Finally, we must all try to reduce our reliance on oil the old (and ridiculous) practice of inspections by owners. Recently, the BSEE chose Texas A&M to host a new and gas. After all, it is our demand for oil that’s driving Ocean Energy Safety Institute. Its mission is to draw on the these companies to drill in ever deeper and more perilous best industry, academic, and government minds to reduce waters. Our country needs to invest in efficiency so we can the risks of this inherently dangerous business. The bureau do more with less. And we need to promote wind, solar, also put in place a whistle-blower program to enable offshore and other forms of renewable energy so we can power our economy in a cleaner, safer, more sustainable way. workers to anonymously report near misses. But the bureau still needs to strengthen standards for the design and operation of so-called blowout preventers; Bob Deans, NRDC’s associate director of communications, is a require environmental impact statements for sites with veteran newspaper reporter and a former president of the White complex geology or in extremely deep water; and enhance House Correspondents’ Association. His most recent book is Reckless: the role of science in decisions about offshore drilling. The Political Assault on the American Environment.

1 2 onearth

S P RIN G 2 0 1 4

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where onearth

lonely hunter A statue-still egret stalks fish in an Everglades cypress dome.


In Everglades National Park, the primordial is present-day By kim tingley

andwiched between coasts teeming with people and

bordered by two major highways, Everglades National Park nevertheless seems far removed from civilization. As you drive on Interstate 75—known as Alligator Alley—the expanse of serrated sawgrass on either side appears infinite. Combed through its blades, tannin-tinted water flows imperceptibly southward—the reason the author and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas named this place the “River of Grass.” A subtropical sun warms the backs of massive reptiles basking on the banks. Hammocks of sabal palm and live oak hide the nests of wading birds. Heavy afternoon clouds bring rain and fire to the diversity of habitats: shady cypress sloughs and pine forests, coastal lowlands, mangroves, brackish estuaries, and marl prairie. Visitors can enter the park from either coast. At Shark Valley, near Miami, take a tram tour or bike through a paved stretch of park where alligators are plentiful. On the Gulf side, look for manatees in the canal behind the marina in the town of Flamingo. From there or from Everglades City, take a guided boat tour of the Ten Thousand Islands, home to dolphins, osprey, smalltooth sawfish, and invasive Burmese pythons. Between Everglades City and Flamingo stretches the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, which—if you’re prepared to paddle against wind and tides and brave the stings of mosquitoes—may be the most rewarding way to experience this natural wonder, an ecosystem still untamed enough to resist you.


Gator Aid Before damming and dredging made

Florida a paradise for tourists and developers, the Everglades stretched uninterrupted from just south of Orlando to the foot of the peninsula. Now nearly half of the original Everglades has been lost to development, and what’s left is threatened by the redistribution of water through locks and canals. Meanwhile, residents’ need for freshwater is straining the state’s aquifers. In 2000 President Clinton signed into law the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which will spend $13.5 billion over 30 years to optimize the flow of clean water through South Florida. So far, funds have been used to fill seven miles of canals, remove 65 miles of roadway, and restore 13,000 acres of habitat. But overall, progress remains dishearteningly slight, and far too slow to counter the effects of overdevelopment.

snap pictures of birds, alligators, and other wildlife on the Anhinga Trail inside Everglades National Park. lunch on hush puppies and listen to live music at Joanie’s Blue Crab Café, in Ochopee. stock uP on local fruits and vegetables (and try the tropical fruit shake!) at Robert Is Here, in Florida City. 1 4 onearth

spring 2014

farrell grehan/national geographic creative

totally swamped

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Departs September 4, 2014. Fly into Hamburg, Germany and enjoy an amazing city sightseeing tour. Then transfer to Kiel where you’ll board the MSC Orchestra. Experience luxury cruising as you sail to ports in: Copenhagen, Denmark, with its heritage of legend and poetic storybook tales; Southampton, UK; Vigo, Spain, a beautiful town on the northeast coast with narrow cobbled streets; Lisbon, Portugal, one of the world’s great ports; Palma de Mallorca, Spain; Valletta, Malta; and Dubrovnik, Croatia. Disembark in Venice, Italy where you will enjoy a tour of this amazing city. Then travel to Verona, offering examples of Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture; and Milan, Italy where you will depart for home.

* PPDO. Based on inside stateroom (Cat. L), upgrades available. Plus $299 tax/service/government fees. Alternate departure dates available June-September. Seasonal charges may apply. Add-on airfare available.


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Departs September 19, 2014. Fly into Philadelphia and enjoy a sightseeing tour. Then your scenic journey begins through Amish Country to Gettysburg. Travel north with a stop at the Corning Museum of Glass, into Ontario and awe-inspiring Niagara Falls for two nights! Return to upstate New York where you will board a cruise through the 1000 Islands; drive through the Adirondack region, stop in Lake Placid, then into the White Mountains, including Franconia Notch State Park, NH. Stop at Flume Gorge and witness the impressive waterfalls, then continue east to York county, ME. Next, drive along the New England coast to Boston, with a city tour; visit Plymouth, founded by the Pilgrims and Cape Cod. Then view the gorgeous Mansions of Newport, RI en route to Bridgeport, CT and tour New York City seeing all the major sights of the “Big Apple.”

Departs December 29, 2014. Fly into the “City of Angels” that includes a full city tour of Los Angeles, Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Attend YMT’s own VIP presentation on the history and traditions of the Rose Parade, plus an exclusive, pre-parade, after public hours, float building and viewing at the Rosemont Pavilion with included dinner. Then on Thursday, January 1, 2015, observe the 126th Rose Parade from your reserved YMT grand stand seats! The following day, depart for Central California and travel the breathtaking Pacific Coast Highway. Visit Santa Barbara and its Camino Real Mission; Wine Country and the Danish Village of Solvang. Travel to San Pedro where you will embark Norwegian Cruise Line’s Star. Enjoy “freestyle” cruising as you sail to ports in: Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco, Puerto Chiapas in Mexico; Puntarenas, Costa Rica, a scenic journey through the Panama Canal, where you will also see Gatun Lake and the Gaillard Cut and Cartagena, Colombia.

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spring 2014

s c i e n c e b u s i n e s s n a t u r e t e c h n o l o g y c u l t u r e p o l i t i c s

The texas bullet: Y’all aboard!


illustration by eva Vázquez; statistics: rand mcnally (1,2), bloomberg (3)

by jeff turrentine

As high-speed rail stalls in California, could the Lone Star State be poised to put the country’s first bullet train on track?

n Asia and Europe, tens of millions of people

have been happily riding high-speed bullet trains for decades. On our own shores, however, the implementation of intercity high-speed rail has suffered from a host of delays. The one system that has managed to get moving, somewhat—California’s—has lately found itself beset by legal problems and public cynicism over rising costs and the use of eminent domain to obtain private land for the rail line’s right-of-way. The situation has fans of high-speed rail worried. If America’s first bullet-train system can’t get built in high-tech, environmentally progressive California, they wonder, where can it possibly get built? Hold on to your ten-gallon hats. Texas, of all places, has emerged


miles separating cities of nashville, TN, and columbus, oh


as the state that may stand the best chance of winning the U.S. race for high-speed rail. That California might lose bullet-train bragging rights to a state governed by a pro-fracking climate-change skeptic may come as a surprise. But a Texas triumph could also provide us with a teachable moment about how to tailor bullet-train projects to the different cultures and demographics of all 50 states. Right now, the group pushing hardest to bring the bullet train to the Lone Star State is Texas Central Railway, a collection of movers and shakers within Texas’s tight-knit business and public policy communities. Lately, TCR’s vision of whisking passengers across the 240 miles that separate Dallas and Houston in under 90 minutes has picked up considerable speed. With business partner JR Central, Japan’s busiest high-speed rail provider, the company

miles separating cities of chicago, IL, and oxford, MS


top miles--per-hour speed reached by japan’s L-zero bullet train

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good finds

is lining up $10 billion in purely private capital— vowing to forgo any public funding. Though his company has been working closely with federal and state agencies on safety and right-ofway issues, TCR president Robert Eckels is confident that “our private development approach will be successful for this corridor.” TCR’s market-led approach, he adds, “will be differentiated by the high level of customer experience offered.” That level is hinted at on TCR’s website, which emphasizes the speed and luxuriousness of the Japanese-built trains that would make up the company’s rolling stock. Clearly TCR hopes to lure the same Texas business travelers who helped make Southwest Airlines a homegrown corporate success story—but who now complain that the time spent getting into and out of airports has made flying between

A Texas bullet train could draw as many as 22,000 passengers a day

Natural pesticides don’t get any more natural than the predators that snack on aphids, mites, and other garden-destroyers. One seed-packet-size envelope of pheromoneemitting PredaLure will attract enough ladybugs, lacewings, and other insect vigilantes to cover 500 square feet.


hen the pacific science center

in Seattle issued an open call for artists to submit projects demonstrating solar energy’s potential, local artist Dan Corson cheated: he sent the judges flowers. Now Corson’s five-stem bouquet of 33-foot-tall “sunflowers”—capped by brightly colored, 20-foot-wide blossoms—graces the museum’s entrance. Nestled atop these blossoms are photovoltaic (PV) panels that absorb plenty of sunlight during the day (yes, even in famously cloudy Seattle, which is Corson’s, and the museum’s, point). Stored solar energy is used to power an electronic symphony of mysterious harmonic tones during the day and a light show once the sun goes down. Inside the museum, visitors can observe daily, monthly, and yearly data on the flowers’ sunlight-collecting and energy-generating capacities. “Not that all solar projects are ugly, but we often see PV cells arranged in an efficient and non-aesthetic manner,” Corson told Smithsonian magazine. “I wanted to look at ways of using the PV cells to tell more stories.”

spring 2014

a zoo out there Lions and tigers and bears? Old hat! Give your favorite city kid a copy of the Urban Wildlife Coloring Book, a clever bestiary—signed by the artist—featuring a cast of critters closer to home. $25, at merceranddibble.

only a paper room


o what if the tiny, remote West

Texas town of Marathon (pop. 430) can’t claim any big-city tourist attractions? No other town can boast a place like Eve’s Garden: a B&B-style inn built almost entirely out of papercrete, a composite building material that uses recycled paper as a base. It’s a colorful nod to sustainable design in a location where you’d never expect it.

top: kathy collins/getty images; right: photograph for onearth by ted wood

Dallas and Houston not much faster, and definitely not any easier, than driving. Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser has calculated that every trip between Dallas and Houston in a bullet train rather than in a car or plane would keep 113 pounds of CO2 from entering our atmosphere. And in a report sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation and published last year, a group of civil engineers and economists estimated that a bullet train connecting Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio could draw as many as 22,000 passengers a day. Even if you cut those ridership numbers in half, train passengers would still be reducing atmospheric CO2 by more than a million pounds every day. Doubtless there are plenty of Texans who would cite the chance to cut CO2 emissions by hundreds of millions of pounds annually as reason enough to support high-speed rail. But that’s not the segment of the market TCR is reaching out to. Mass transit yields an environmental dividend regardless of why people use it. Were the nation’s first bullet train to come about thanks to Texas business travelers—shuttling, ironically, between two capitals of the oil and chemical industries—it could be the best advertisement imaginable. If high-speed rail is good enough for the good ol’ boys and gals of Texas, maybe the rest of America will realize that it’s good enough for them too.

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best buggies

flower power

dedicated to rebuilding our food system from the grassroots up. At Slow Money gatherings, which regularly take place on the national, regional, and local levels, investors get the chance to connect with small farmers and entrepreneurs who are committed to growing or selling sustainably produced food. The one-on-one connections forged at these events ease the way for the

food-production system bigger and faster, we’ll be doing so at the expense of our soil fertility, aquifer waters, and biodiversity. These things are priceless, and we all know that they’re priceless, and we constantly bemoan their loss—but then we throw up our hands and say that we have no idea how to restore balance to the system. Systems can consist of either

Slow Money isn’t necessarily saying, ‘No more big things.’ But it is saying, ‘We need more small things.’

food fighter

Woody Tasch’s Slow Money group lifts up small farmers.

share the bounty How ya gonna keep ’em down on the organic farm? By investing in it, says a veteran financial strategist Though it’s certainly easier

to find local, sustainably grown meat and produce in America than it was 20 years ago, the deck nevertheless remains stacked against small farmers and sellers who would feed the steadily increasing demand for such Ted Genoways fare. Many of our food-production talks to system’s most dangerous and unsusWoody Tasch tainable practices—from pumping factory-farmed livestock full of antibiotics to depleting and polluting groundwater supplies—are precisely what put the “big” in Big Agriculture in the first place. Some of the systemic advantages that Big Ag now enjoys thanks to economies of scale include widespread distribution networks, multimillion-dollar marketing budgets, and easy access to capital, to name just a few. Woody Tasch aims to level the growing field. Tasch spent 10 years as chairman of the Investors’ Circle, a nonprofit network of foundations, venture capitalists, and other deep-pocketed interests that directs capital toward socially and environmentally progressive start-ups and enterprises. Then, in 2009, he became the founding chairman of Slow Money, a nationwide network of investors—from private equity specialists in office towers to white-haired grandmas in rocking chairs—wholly

flow of investment capital that can help a dairy cooperative or an organic grain mill expand its operations, or get a new locally sourced grocery store up and running in an underserved community. Nearly 25,000 people have signed on to the Slow Money Principles, a bullet-point manifesto that, among other things, calls upon signatories to “invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered” and to “connect investors to the places where they live.” So far, Slow Money members have invested more than $33 million in 250 small and sustainable food enterprises around the country. I sat down to lunch with Tasch one afternoon last December in Boulder, Colorado, to discuss food, farms, and the difference between traditional venture capital and the Slow Money concept of “nurture capital.” What makes Slow Money different from other investment models?

Slow Money is about asking people to consider the costs and benefits associated with the production of our food. If we continue to spend all our energy and capital building 10,000-acre industrial farms and making our

small numbers of ver y large things or large numbers of small things. Which one of these seems likely to be more stable in the long term? Slow Money isn’t necessarily saying, “No more big things.” But it is saying, “We need more small things.” Who’s signing up?

People who believe we’re fast approaching—or have already reached—our global limits, and who don’t want to participate in a scenario that has us mindlessly consuming our way to the very end. They understand that there are many different ways to define “return on investment,” including enhancing soil fertility, keeping water in our aquifers, and fostering healthier communities. There are millions of people in America who fit that description and who are giving signs that they’re ready to do something about it. They range from wealthy individuals to those who may have only a few thousand dollars to invest. In our Maine chapter, just for example, we had someone write a single $3 million check to help finance a dairy cooperative. We also had 19 people who formed their own investment club by

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writing $5,000 checks and pooling their money. They named their club No Small Potatoes, and they’ve already made dozens of low-interest, three-year loans to a number of family farms and foodrelated small businesses throughout the state. But how do you go from a handful of people writing checks for $5,000 to upending a system as well-financed and politically mobilized as Big Ag?

I know that our $33 million isn’t meaningful when you put it up against anything that happens on Wall Street during a single minute of one trading day. It doesn’t even show up as a blip. But ideas and culture matter, too, even if they can’t be quantified. There has to be a cultural shift. And it has to start at the community level. One of the first times I ever spoke about Slow Money in public was in Burlington, Vermont. There were 50 people in the room, 49 of whom were wildly enthusiastic about the idea. But there was one guy in the back who, at the very end of my talk, said, “I’ve been banking here in Burlington for 35 years. My question for you is: How on earth are you going to get anybody to do this? You’re turning everything we’ve all been taught as investors 100 percent upside‑down.” My answer to him was: “The other 49 people in this room want this to happen. The truth is, we don’t really have to convince you in order to have an effect. The job for those of us who want to go in this direction is just to help one another go in this direction.” Sometimes the people who are most inspired to do something about a problem are the ones who feel they can’t do anything; the problem seems so big that they get paralyzed. Making it easier for people to buy food from the guy down the street is a way to take 2 0 onearth

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part in a cultural shift that’s occurring right now, the signs of which are getting clearer and clearer. What are those signs?

Look at the growth of farmers’ markets and CSAs [communitysupported agriculture, whereby small farmers contract with consumers to sell their produce over specified periods of time], which have both experienced such a burst of energy over the last 20 years. Back in 1980, there were no CSAs; now there are estimates that something like half a million Americans belong to one. If those estimates are correct, it means that for 500,000 Americans, the decisions about how and where to get their food are rooted in something other than finding the best deal. They’re rooted in the consumer’s desire to develop a relationship with the provider of that food. It’s a completely different way of measuring worth.

homeward drowned


fter Andrew Thaler self-published fleet,

a science-fiction novel set in a future where climate change has led to massive global flooding, he needed a way to promote the book and its apocalyptic theme. His darkly clever publicity campaign was to “drown” various wellknown cities (via modified Google Earth screen grabs) according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s absolute-worst-case-scenario projections of future sea-level rise, then post images of the submerged locales—including many of their most recognizable landmarks—on his Twitter feed. Then, to Thaler’s astonishment, his Twitter followers began making requests: they wanted to see their own cities underwater. Such was the demand for deluge that the 29-year-old Thaler, who holds a Ph.D. in marine science and conservation from Duke University, had to create a new Twitter feed with its own hashtag—#drownyourtown—to handle all the requests. His earlier models, such as the 262 feet of water over Washington, D.C., which spared little but the top of the Washington Monument, were at the far end of statistical probability, and were constructed primarily for maximum visual and emotional impact. Once he began basing his models on more realistic projections—Nagoya, Japan, for instance, buried under less than 40 inches of water—the results were all the more shocking for their increased plausibility. Now visitors to #drownyourtown are encouraged to submit their own doctored images—turning this Twitter feed into a fascinating, if ominous, cascade.

In other words, the future of America’s small, sustainable farms is in the hands of their neighbors?

How is the next generation of small farmers going to buy farmland at $5,000 or even $10,000 an acre? The only prayer we have is if the people who live in communities where small farms are located decide that they’re going to be the ones to support the farmers. That’s where relationships enter the equation. When people begin connecting personally to these farms, they begin to perceive the value of saving them. They may not even think about whether to call the act of saving them “philanthropy” or “investing.” You don’t calculate the value of going outside to play a game of catch with your son in dollars; you go outside and play with your son because it has an innate value to you personally. To our members, saving the family farm down the street is no different.

left: courtesy of andrew thaler; right: photograph for onearth by brian adams


top of the world

The glaciologist has spent more than 30 years studying the Arctic snowpack.

the snowman cometh Matthew Sturm has dedicated his career to sifting, scrutinizing, and saving the white stuff


By charles wohlforth

he overwhelming feature of the

Arctic coastal plain on a bright April morning is its dazzling featurelessness. A convoy of snowmobiles roars across the hard, white flatness: a landscape that offers a rider no sense of being in motion. At a randomly selected spot, the machines stop. The scientists aboard them get off and efficiently establish a temporary research site, setting up instruments, digging pits, and making measurements. Land as flat and white as blank paper offers no obvious clue as to why it’s the subject of such enthusiastic interest. Most enthusiastic of all is 61-year-old glaciologist Matthew Sturm. Diving into a snow pit, he gathers individual snow crystals onto a black card and stares intently at their intricate forms through a hand lens. From this seeming infinity of snow, Sturm is able to read discrete snow crystals as if they were books taken from a library shelf, discoursing on them in the subzero air. As he notes the shape of these crystals and their position in the thin layer of Arctic snowpack, Sturm is actually decoding the story of the winter’s weather: when this snow fell, when the air warmed, when the

wind blew, and so on. Once this particular expedition is over and its data interpreted, he will be able to calculate what sorts of contaminants these snowflakes carried and how they moved over the landscape. Such data will aid him and his fellow scientists in their efforts to model the changing snowpack, in its dynamic entirety, on a computer. “Most people get in a snow pit, and they look—and it looks all white,” Sturm says. “I look at it and I think: how can they not see?” Sturm seems happiest on frigid expeditions into the snowy wilderness. In addition to the more than two dozen treks he has made in the name of science, he has been known to take off across the frozen tundra for recreation, with friends and family members in tow. His love affair with the Arctic began when he was a young man working on the crew of a Coast Guard icebreaker. Later, as a budding scientist, he studied glaciers on a volcano. Finally, as a mature researcher, he made a name for himself by exploring some of the world’s coldest and most remote places in search of data about snow that no one else had bothered to look for. Now he holds a body of knowledge that’s of immense importance in our warming world. In recent decades, Sturm has watched the Arctic snowpack dimin-

Sturm’s book, Finding the Arctic, details his 2,500-mile snowmobile journey across Alaska and Canada

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ish. “The world is just not as white as it used to be,” he says. “And that’s a big problem, because white reflects energy.” New snow, he explains, protects the earth from the sun’s heat by reflecting 80 percent of it back into space. Bare tundra, on the other hand, absorbs 80 percent of that energy. As climate change has caused Arctic snow to retreat, the reduction of polar reflectivity has accelerated the warming of the climate—which has further contributed to Arctic snowmelt, resulting in a harmful feedback loop. After 26 years at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fairbanks, Sturm recently accepted an academic position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, where he hopes to help shape the next generation of snow scientists. His richly illustrated 2012 book, Finding the Arctic, details his 2,500-mile snowmobile journey across Alaska and Canada. Sturm also wrote a children’s book, Apun: The Arctic Snow, and designed a teachers’ guide to help kids better understand the importance of snow to the health of the planet. Lately he has had to focus on a task he enjoys far less: advocating for the launch of a snowpack-measuring satellite. Modern satellites are able to tell us how much land is covered by snow. But that’s not enough, Sturm says. Most of our water comes from snow, but snow’s reliability as a water source depends on its depth and moisture content. And no satellite that’s currently operational—or even currently planned—is capable of giving scientists that kind of critical information. It’s information that he believes is needed—urgently. “We rely on snow, as humans, enormously,” Sturm says. “I have kids; hopefully I’ll have grandkids someday. What I do matters. What I figure out matters. And it’s real.” 2 2 onearth

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What it’s called: When to Plant Compatible with: iOS What it does: Gives optimal planting times for vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers, basing suggestions on frost data gleaned from nearly 5,000 weather stations. Also includes advice on best soil types and sun requirements for specific plants, as well as sowing and harvesting tips. How much it costs: $1.99 SPOTLIGHT The latest larger-thanlife figure to get the Hollywood biopic treatment is the world’s first wildlife conservationist and expert on sea-level rise. Noah, starring Russell Crowe, floods box offices on March 28.

float ’em a few bucks


anna get in on the ground floor of a really

cool research project that will massively boost your science-geek cred? In this case, the ground floor is just below sea level, and the project is SeaOrbiter: a 1,000-ton, semi-submersible, residential ocean-research facility that has been likened, in terms of its overall mission, to Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. As fanciful as it may seem, the project enjoys the blessing of scientists affiliated with NASA and NOAA, among others. And though they don’t seem to want for corporate and institutional partners—Microsoft and UNESCO have signed on—SeaOrbiter’s founders have opened up a portion of its construction financing to the public via a crowd-funding campaign. Interested in being a sponsor? Get out your credit card ... and make it so.

sneeze alarm 24 21 14



12 more than a quarter of americans are allergic to ragweed

pollen. Now there are signs that climate change is actually increasing the length of ragweed season in the Midwest. Figures inside the circles on this partial U.S. map represent the number of days by which the season grew in various parts of the region between 1995 and 2011.

map data: national allergy bureau; above: courtesy of jACQUES ROUGERIE


you’re onearth enter our photography contest

winner: John Dreyer  camera: Nikon D5100 about THE photo: “Descanso Gardens is a sprawling and beautiful botanical garden in La Cañada Flintridge, a small city nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, just north of Los Angeles. I took this photo of fall leaves reflected in the rippled water in early December, a couple of days before my wife and I moved from the area to South Carolina. Despite whatever people may think, leaves do in fact ‘turn’ in Southern California; they just tend to do so a little bit later in the season.”

how to win

Share your best photographs of life on earth with us: images of wildlife habitat, but also human habitat and wherever the two meet (harmoniously or inharmoniously). We’re looking for scenes with a strong visual point of view, attitude, and, of course, beauty. The winning photo will be published in OnEarth magazine, and the runner-up will be featured online at

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Contest winner will receive a FREE trip for two to any Caravan Tours destination: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Canadian Rockies, Grand Canyon, Nova Scotia, New England & Fall Foliage—valued up to $5,000. Second-place winner will receive a pair of Vanguard Endeavor ED binoculars (value: $425).

spring 2014

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unknown unknowns


n 1901 an astronomer named A. E. Douglass

had a revolutionary idea for how to study the effect of sunspot cycles on the earth’s weather and climate: cut down a tree and look at the growth rings on a cross-section of its trunk. At low elevations, he found, the width of the rings correlates with precipitation. Only later did he realize that the rings could also be used as a dating tool to help archaeologists figure out the age of ancient civilizations, Viking ships, Stradivarius violins, framed paintings. Almost anything made of wood, it turned out, held a hitherto invisible record of the time and conditions in which the tree had lived. Back then, Douglass measured rings with calipers. Now, at the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, which he founded at the University of Arizona 77 years ago, modern-day dendrochronologists have a host of high-tech tools that let them ask and answer complex questions about the conditions in which trees have lived. These advances have inspired them to create and maintain an archive containing millions of tree samples from around the globe, some dating back thousands of years. The lab’s director, Thomas Swetnam, likens the archive to a vast library filled with many volumes whose literary value has yet to be determined. “The tree-ring sections are like books, and the rings are like pages—and we’ve read just some of them,” he says. “We’re taking care of the wood because we know from past experience that we’ll develop new tools and new ways of measuring.” Like Douglass before him, Swetnam understands how unforeseeable insights and technological developments can lead us toward new discoveries and conclusions . “There’s the known unknown,” he says,

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by kim tingley

“and then there’s the unknown unknown.” It’s a Lewis Carroll–esque way of describing two parallel paths to discovery. Scientists traveling the first believe they can see the shape of their elusive quarry, like a hole in a mostly completed jigsaw puzzle. Scientists on the second path don’t even realize they’re on it until they reach the end, where some combination of technological advancement, creativity, and/or luck reveals an answer to a question they had never thought to ask. Swetnam refers to advances made under this latter set of circumstances as “Who’d have thunk it?” discoveries. One example from the 1970s came by way of some astrophysicists who wondered whether the explosion of a particular star back in AD 1054 had affected the atmospheric composition of the earth, some six light-years away. They tested the isotopes of an ancient tree in the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research archives. Within the ring pattern that corresponded to that year were clear signs of high-energy particles emitted by the star, particles that a scientist of A. E. Douglass’s era would never have had the means—or, for that matter, the notion—to measure. One wonders: What other natural archives are out there, hiding in plain sight, waiting for someone to unlock their secret wisdom? When a type of surface-dwelling plankton called foraminifera die, they sink to the ocean floor, forming layers of sediment that date back as many as 150 million years. Last year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison announced that they had measured the isotopic signature of ancient, fossilized foraminifera at a scale about a million times smaller than had previously been possible. In so doing, they were able to pinpoint not only when the plankton had lived but also what the ocean temperature had been at the time. It’s a “powerful record” of long-term climate change, says the geoscientist John Valley, who took part in the study. The ion microprobe that his team used isn’t a new invention, but the technology behind it has greatly improved over the past 30 years. In addition, Valley and his colleagues have developed protocols that heighten the resolution of its measurements. Recently a team of visiting Japanese marine biologists brought ear stones from a rare species of eel to Valley’s lab, where they used his microprobe to help determine how cold the water had been in the creatures’ birthplace, the exact location of which was a mystery. The temperature data they gathered led to a new set of underwater coordinates—where the scientists eventually found the eels, hatching. It can be scary to admit just how big a part serendipity plays in our ability to measure—and thus to understand—the natural world. We like to believe that our scientific inquiries are utterly methodical and under our control. On the other hand, it can be exciting to realize that they’re not. Research has always been driven as much by our innate love of seeing and learning things for the first time as by our need to solve problems or complete theories. What could be more gratifying to the explorer in all of us than adding the final piece to the jigsaw puzzle and discovering that the puzzle you just solved is different from the one you thought you had started? Kim Tingley, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, writes the Working Hypothesis column for

illustration by jesse lefkowitz

the synthesist

the worm has turned


by bruce stutz

s a volunteer for a survey

of woodland amphibians and reptiles in eastern Pennsylvania, I was given

the job of counting all the red-backed salamanders that I found beneath rocks and fallen tree limbs. I found plenty, which was no surprise. In some hardwood forests, the combined mass of these lithe, delicate, and streamlined little amphibians can outweigh that of all the birds and small mammals put together. What was remarkable, however, was the number of

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earthworms I was uncovering—dense, wriggling caches of sometimes a dozen or more. When, with some smugness, I mentioned to the biologist in charge that all these earthworms were a sure sign that this was “good soil,” his sharp response jolted me: these earthworms, he said, were wrecking this forest, just as earthworms were wrecking forests all the way from the Great Smokies to the Great Lakes. Wait—earthworms? The nightcrawlers I’d dug up as a kid? The red wigglers I’d bought by the boxful from bait shop coolers and gas station vending machines, the ones that I threaded on hooks for my own kids when I took them fishing, or that appeared on lawns after drenching summer rains? Like many people, I had been laboring for years under the impression that earthworms were completely beneficent—that their presence in your vegetable garden or flower beds meant that you were good to go. Lots of gardeners, I knew, even bought them mail order—from actual worm farms, no less!—to add to their precious compost piles. The reputation of these creatures, so far as I could tell, was as the condicio sine qua non of no-till organic agriculture: burrowing through hard and compacted soils, digesting fields full of vegetable matter, and converting it all into nutrient-rich cropland. No less a scientist than Charles Darwin devoted nearly 40 years to the study of earthworms. He greatly admired the industriousness of these blind and deaf creatures as they burrowed deeply through the soil, their prodigious appetites, and the surfeit of castings—the soil-like excretions—that they left behind. Darwin concluded that earthworms had engineered much of the natural landscape: the gradual accumulation of all those castings, he believed, was the terrestrial equivalent of the accumulation of calcareous skeletons that formed the earth’s coral reefs over many eons. In his 1881 book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Actions of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, he wrote, “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.” Ecosystem builders! Peerless composters! Great fish bait! So why, among the forest ecologists with whom I spoke, couldn’t I find one with a kind word to say about earthworms? Most of them instead simply echoed the sentiments of Timothy Fahey, a professor in the department of natural resources at Cornell University, who calls earthworms—in North American forest settings, at least—“more of a curse than a blessing.” The reason he and many of his colleagues feel this way is rooted in a surprising fact: of the nearly 200 different taxa of earthworms found in Canada and the United States, almost one-third are actually invasive species. And the concentration of non-native earthworm species is far greater in the temperate and temperate-coniferous forests of North America, where almost none of the earthworm species are native. Their invasion commenced in the seventeenth century, when European ship captains first began dumping their ballasts of foreign rock and soil onto our eastern shores to make room for the goods and crops they were hauling back home. As the colonies grew and spread, so did the populations of European earthworms. In the twentieth century, however, these slow-moving creatures—

illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg

think again

their populations are capable of spreading only about 30 feet per year—were given a number of free rides that resulted in their wider dispersal. Anglers began traveling to once-remote lakes in far greater numbers, throwing their unused, still-wriggling bait into the water after a day’s fishing. Landscapers transported infested soil to increasingly far-flung suburbs and developments. Earthworms became popular as natural composters for gardeners and small farmers. And once they established themselves in the temperate forests of North America, Fahey and other scientists say, the worms began to wreak havoc on the carefully calibrated makeup of forest-floor ecosystems. For millennia, fungi and bacteria had been the top detritivores in northern hardwood forests; together they worked to decompose the forest floor’s litter of fallen leaves, twigs, and bark. But they performed this service slowly—so slowly, in fact, that they couldn’t keep up with all that was steadily raining down upon them from above. The result was a permanent layer of organic humus known as duff (or, by scientists, as the O horizon): that soft, spongy, 4- to 5-inch-thick layer that makes the experience of walking in a healthy forest feel like padding about in a pair of slippers. SHORT T A K E

Friend or Foe? The term “invasive species” denotes any non-native

plant or animal that has begun to inflict damage on its ecosystem. But does that mean all non-native species should be viewed with suspicion and actively prevented from establishing themselves? Mark Davis, a biologist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, doesn’t necessarily think so. In support of taking more of a wait-and-see approach to the introduction of nonnative species, Davis notes that some of them have actually proved beneficial to their ecosystems (think honeybees), and adds that “unless a species evolved in a particular site, all species are ultimately introduced.” On the other side of the debate are ecologists like Manuel Lerdau of the University of Virginia, who argue that waiting is a luxury most ecosystems can ill afford, given the gravity of the consequences should an introduced species prove to be more harmful than beneficial. To ask ecologists to withhold judgment until all the data are in—which can take hundreds of years—“set[s] an unrealistically high bar for those making management decisions,” Lerdau has written.

Within a healthily functioning O horizon, fungi create vast networks of fine mycelia that intertwine with the tiny roots of trees and plants, facilitating nutrient absorption and water uptake. Simultaneously, bacteria perform various feats of organic chemistry that help establish the soil’s nitrogen cycle. Nematodes and protozoa then graze on both the bacteria and the fungi and, in turn, get grazed upon by arthropods such as mites, springtails, beetles, and millipedes. Salamanders feed on the lot of them. Seeds buried in the duff can survive there largely undisturbed, protected from predators. Seedlings can take their time developing in these moist, mineral-rich surroundings. What Fahey and others have now come to realize is that earthworms are capable of wiping out an entire century’s worth of this ecologically crucial humus in a few years’ time. In Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest, scientists watched as invasive worms took over plots that had recently been earthworm-free. (Their trajectory—they began near the shore of a lake and gradually made their way inland—strongly suggested an origin as fishing bait.) The worms devoured the O horizon, gobbling up fine tree roots and leaving little behind but a gritty coating of castings and a lone season’s output of leaf litter. What typically follows in such cases is a cascade of ecological damage. Bacteria and fungi begin to disappear. Gone is the O horizon’s protective seedbed. Tree roots become exposed and vulnerable, in a phenomenon some scientists have likened to gingivitis. The supply of herbaceous vegetation is greatly reduced and physically altered, diminishing its availability as a food source for salamanders and its attractiveness as a breeding site for ground-nesting birds. One study of a Wisconsin forest found that rampant earthworm activity had reduced the duff’s thickness by two-thirds and its weight by nearly 90 percent. Pre-invasion, the O horizon had been 1.8 inches thick and had tipped the scales at 3,530 pounds per acre; post-invasion, its thickness had tapered down to 0.6 inches and its weight per acre had dropped to a paltry 393 pounds. So while they might be of great service in a backyard compost pile or at the end of a hook, earthworms are basically up to no good in the American forest. Gardeners should know that, whatever it may say on the website or on the side of the box, the worms they’re purchasing are almost never “native.” Furthermore, most commercial worm dealers aren’t selling a single species of worm inside a box, but rather groupings of species. And anglers should know that most modern earthworm invasions begin at fishing docks. Unused bait worms that get dumped into the water won’t drown, and will very likely find their way to shore before long. Finally, we should all know that earthworms, once established within an ecosystem, are almost impossible to remove. At the very least, however, we can do our part to discourage their further spread into those North American temperate forests that they have yet to invade—merely by thinking twice before blithely throwing a spare nightcrawler over the side of a dock, or ordering 1,000 red wrigglers online for $19.95. I’ll bet even Charles Darwin could get behind that. Bruce Stutz is a contributing editor to OnEarth. His most recent article for the magazine was “Will Superscientists Save the Day?” (Spring 2013).

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er stor


p h o t o g r a p h s by Mary Anne Andrei

how factory farms are poisoning iowa’s water

hog wild by ted genoways

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bacon-bound These three-monthold females will soon be shipped for slaughter to a Hormel Foods plant in Minnesota.

waste dump Near Estherville, Iowa, Jay Moore of New Fashion Pork stands by a field recently fertilized with hog manure.


efore I even stepped from my truck onto

the gravel outside the New Fashion Pork hog confinement facility, Emily Erickson, the company’s animal well-being and quality assurance manager, handed me a pair of stretchy white plastic footies to put over my shoes. It was a blustery day in September, the sky threatening snow—the first hint of winter, when cold, dry air stabilizes viruses and biosecurity becomes a topmost concern. All of the hogs inside the confinement near Jackson, Minnesota, just north of the Iowa state line and on the headwaters of the Des Moines River, would be sold to Hormel Foods. Hormel would soon post record profits on the strength of sales of Spam to Asian markets and the expansion of the company’s China operations. But Jim Snee, head of Hormel Foods International, announced that the company was making an even bigger push, to firmly establish Spam in Chinese grocery stores before products from its competitor Smithfield Foods, purchased by Shuanghui International in May, could elbow them out. As a major supplier to Hormel’s Spam plants in Minnesota and Nebraska, New Fashion Pork was racing to keep pace with demand. The last thing the company could afford was an outbreak of disease. To an outsider, the hog industry’s vigilance against external pathogens—symbolized by those hygienic footies—can seem strangely at odds with its dismissal of concerns about the effects of its facilities on human health. Large producers like New Fashion insist that the enormous, concrete-reinforced waste pits under each confine-

ment—many with a capacity of 300,000 gallons—effectively prevent contaminants from leaching into the soil, and that manure is carefully managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources under laws aimed at accounting for all manure at all times. But mounting evidence suggests that an unprecedented boom in Iowa’s hog industry has created a glut of manure, which is applied as fertilizer to millions of acres of cropland and runs off into rivers and streams, creating a growing public health threat. Meanwhile, the number of DNR staff conducting inspections has been cut by 60 percent since 2007. Between May and July 2013, as downpours sheeted off drought-hardened fields, scientists at the Des Moines Water Works watched manure contamination spike to staggering levels at intake sites on the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. These two major tributaries of the Mississippi are also the usual sources of drinking water for roughly one out of every six Iowans. But at one point last summer, nitrate in the Raccoon reached 240 percent of the level allowed under the Clean Water Act, and the DMWW warned parents not to let children drink from the tap, reminding them of the risk of blue baby syndrome. (Nitrate impairs the oxygen capacity of the bloodstream; in babies and toddlers the syndrome can effectively cut off their air supply, rendering them a deathly blue.) Mounting concern about the safety of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has stoked a public outcry. So, to be honest, I was shocked when Brad Freking, the CEO of New Fashion Pork, agreed to allow me to tour one of its facilities. In the changing room, I zipped into some navy coveralls and slid a pair of clear plastic boots over a second set of footies. Emily Erickson turned

at three weeks old, they are loaded and trucked to a wean-to-finish operation, where they are raised on corn and soybeans and then brought to slaughter when they hit target weight

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the handle to the barn entrance, opening the heavy steel door a crack. The sound of squealing hogs spilled into the room. “If you’ve never been inside,” she warned, “it’s a lot of pig, it’s a lot of metal, it’s a lot of noise.” I assured her I was ready, and we headed inside.

illustration by bruce morser


from nrdc the war on drugs

rickson was right: it is a lot of pig. Under the

yellow light of a series of bulbs, 1,000 hogs, divided according to size and approximate age, jostled and jockeyed in large holding pens. They pressed their wet snouts through the metal gates, snuffling and grunting curiously, but scrambled away as Erickson led me down the side aisle. Some, in fits of momentary panic, let out high shrieks, which echoed off the steel roof, setting off cascades of squeals. By this time, these hogs had been through almost the entire process: conceived via artificial insemination in sows held in gestation crates; transferred briefly to farrowing crates for milk-feeding; then, at three weeks old, trucked to this wean-to-finish operation and raised on corn and soybeans delivered by automatic feeders. Within two or three months, when they hit target weight, they would be loaded into trucks and brought to slaughter at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota. Massive amounts of antibiotics are used in the meat industry to promote growth and speed this process. Public health advocates including NRDC have warned that the bacteria in CAFO waste pits like the one under our feet can build antibiotic resistance before being spread across surrounding fields and running off into the water. Freking told me, however, that New Fashion Pork does not use hormones or antibiotics to promote growth. But the company does finish its female hogs with a month-long course of ractopamine, a steroid-like feed additive that increases leanness. (China has banned its use, a factor in the purchase of Smithfield, which used the additive in only 40 percent of its meat and since the sale has gone ractopamine-free.) But more than sight or sound or even worries about superbugs, what hits you in a pig barn is the smell. The hogs scattered and reconvened as we walked, their hooves clicking anxiously on the slotted wooden floors; their waste, some still fresh and moist, was spread on the floor and smeared over their haunches and feet, slowly working its way down through the slats into an enormous underground pit. Still more waste had dried and turned powdery, creating a choking haze that swirled in the dim light. It carried with it a hot, fleshy stink—not just a smell but an astringent, chemical burn that sears your nostrils. On the back wall, giant fans vented ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and other dangerous gases that rise from decomposing manure. A report published jointly by the University of Iowa and Iowa State University in 2002 concluded that air pollution from large-scale confinements “may constitute a public health hazard,” explaining that the problem did not arise primarily from the containment of manure in waste pits but from its application aboveground as fertilizer. (The report attributed fully 80 percent of hazardous gas release to the first six hours after this was done.) In response, the DNR announced new air-quality regulations. But Iowa lawmakers, most of whom count agribusiness among their biggest donors, overruled those standards within days. Instead, new guidelines were established requiring liquid manure to be immediately plowed under or injected directly into the subsoil, preventing harmful gases from escaping into the air. But then came a revolution in the corn industry. In 2005 Congress approved the first Renewable Fuel Standard, requiring the production

avinash kar Attorney with NRDC’s health and environment program, based in San Francisco

How concerned should we be about animal antibiotics? Very concerned. About 80 percent of all the antibiotics sold in this country today are for use in the livestock and poultry industries. One recent study, focusing on hospitalized veterans in rural areas of Iowa, found that those living close to a swine-feeding operation were nearly three times as likely to have methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on them at the time of admission to hospital. This antibioticresistant bacterium is associated with a number of hard-totreat and sometimes even fatal infections. A similar MRSA study out of Pennsylvania last year showed higher levels of antibiotic-resistant skin and soft-tissue infections in people living in proximity to hog farms or fields treated with swine manure. Other studies have shown that the use of antibiotics in animal feed leads to higher levels of resistant bacteria in the animals themselves and that these bacteria can make their way into manure, soil, air, and water. They can also be passed on from the animals to meat-processing workers, and resistant bacteria can even “teach” other bacteria to fight off antibiotics. So the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and other scientific and medical institutions have raised the alarm about the rising rate of antibiotic resistance—pointing to both human and animal use as contributing to the problem. So are there alternatives? Sure. Livestock can be raised in modern industrial facilities without the use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick. Take Denmark, which produces as many pigs as Iowa. Denmark no longer uses antibiotics to speed up growth and prevent diseases associated with crowded and unsanitary conditions. With improved sanitation, less crowding, later weaning of animals, and other good management practices, the country has reduced its use of antibiotics by more than 45 percent. There has been no significant effect on Denmark’s agricultural economy, animal health, or food prices; meat production has actually increased by 12 percent. And resistance to a number of antibiotics has declined in bacteria found on farm animals and in meat. What can we consumers do to make a difference? Look for meat and poultry products labeled “certified organic” or “no antibiotics administered.” And tell your local grocer or restaurant to carry meat from animals raised without antibiotics.

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of at least 7.5 billion gallons of renewable transportation fuels by 2012, creating an overnight demand for ethanol—and therefore for corn. The market price quadrupled, encouraging farmers to plant more and more rows into already overplanted fields. The steep jump in feed prices tipped many struggling hog operations toward bankruptcy. To stabilize the market, several meatpackers were granted exemptions to state laws prohibiting them from owning livestock or feed crops—which brought in out-of-state dollars but also touched off a boom in CAFO-building financed by some of the nation’s largest hog producers. In 2000, 38 permits had been issued statewide to construct or expand animal confinements large enough to require permitting by the DNR; by 2006, the number had vaulted to 318. Iowa now has more than 8,500 factory farms, and is by far the country’s biggest hog producer. More than 18 million of its 20 million hogs are raised in CAFOs—most owned by or under exclusive contract to industry giants such as Smithfield, Cargill, Tyson, or Hormel. To support this boom, however, the industry needed buyers. The fiercest competition has been for expanding Asian markets, which is why Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, and other Midwest governors have made repeated overtures to Japan, China, and South Korea—which collectively import more than $3 billion worth of American pork each year. In April 2013, Branstad met with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing; two months later, representatives from Hebei Province attended the World Pork Expo in Des Moines and struck a deal not only to buy more Iowa hogs but also to learn breeding and herd management techniques. Industry leaders and politicians alike have trumpeted the jobs created by these growing partnerships with China, but the rapid expansion of the hog industry to meet export demand has had a devastating effect on Iowa’s waterways. With farmers now plowing under vegetation and planting every available acre to corn, soil is eroding at an accelerating rate. And when precious topsoil is lost during spring melt and heavy rains, farmers apply more fertilizer to jump-start the crop. According to David Goodner, a spokesman for the watchdog group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Iowa’s factory farms now produce well over five billion gallons of liquid manure a year. The laws governing application of manure may mask the problem by reducing the level of harmful gases in the air, he said, but vast quantities of waste are being injected directly into the drought-stricken and highly erodible soil. The ground simply can’t hold all the nitrates and bacteria being produced by so many hogs.


ay Lausen is soft-spoken, with wispy blond

hair and a shy smile. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who goes looking for trouble, but when New Fashion Pork applied to build a hog confinement less than a mile from his home in 2011, he decided to put up a fight. Lausen’s roots run deep around Estherville, Iowa, a small farming community a few miles from the Minnesota border. His family’s century farm is just six miles from where he and his wife are homeschooling their four children, in the same house where Lausen grew up with his four older siblings. Before New Fashion purchased the 160 acres where it intended to build, Lausen had farmed the land himself, renting it from a neighbor. He knew the spine-like ridge dividing the acreage was critical to the 3 2 onearth

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close quarters Hog barns like this one owned by New Fashion Pork typically house 1,000 or more animals.

just as jay lausen suspected,the plan called for injecting the contents of fields as fertilizer, including the 50 acres watershed. While he had farmed the east side, he had enrolled the west side, some 50 acres, in the Conservation Reserve Program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take environmentally sensitive land out of crop production by paying farmers to instead plant native grasses, windbreaks along property lines, and evergreens to hold soil along waterways. Even with the improved ground cover, a serpentine gully cut across the acreage toward the southwest fence corner, where runoff pooled and swelled into a culvert that drained into the West Fork of the Des Moines River, about half a mile away. Large sections of the river in Emmet County had been on the DNR’s list of impaired waterways for years, so when the landlord said she intended to put the property up for auction in November 2011, Lausen hoped the department would snap it up. After all, it had bought adjacent land on two sides and even paid to undercut the dirt road to reestablish natural drainage as part of a wetland restoration program. But when the auction came around after Thanksgiving of that year, the DNR was nowhere to be found. The high bid came from New Fashion Pork. When Lausen called the department to discuss the building plans, he found that the company intended to erect a 2,400-head wean-tofinish operation. However, the state doesn’t count livestock by heads

required manure management the facility’s waste pit into the surrounding that drain directly into the des moines river but by “animal units”—one such unit being the standard weight of a cow ready for slaughter. A hog is considered 0.4 animal unit; thus, the operation was proposed to hold 960 units, just below the 1,000-unit size that requires a construction permit under DNR rules. And, just as Lausen suspected, the required manure management plan called for injecting the contents of the facility’s waste pit into the surrounding fields—including the 50 acres that drain directly into the Des Moines River. So he started digging through USDA data, DNR reports, state department of health records, researching all of the regulations governing the permitting of CAFOs. What he found about DNR enforcement of those regulations was even more troubling. After more than a decade out of office, Terry Branstad was again elected governor in 2010. In the next few months, he eliminated 100 positions at the DNR, including 14 vacant jobs in CAFO inspection and enforcement. Wayne Gieselman, the agency’s head of environmental compliance, told the Associated Press that these cuts would hurt enforcement: “If we could be on site on a more regular basis, producers would know we’re watching.” Branstad told Roger Lande, the attorney for the powerful Iowa Farm Bureau whom he had just appointed as director of the DNR, that he wanted Gieselman gone.

And he was, within a week. The governor certainly “wanted his own people in there,” Gieselman told me when I reached him by phone in Kansas, where he now works for Region 7 of the EPA. Branstad also announced four appointments to the nine-member Iowa Environmental Protection Commission: a past president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the CEO of a hog-confinement construction company, the CEO of an agricultural lobbying firm, and a former Iowa House member known for her efforts to loosen laws governing the application of manure from confinements. In August 2011, just before the sale of the land near Estherville, the Washington, D.C.–based Environmental Integrity Project, joined by the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, filed notice of intent to sue the EPA for failing to answer an earlier petition to take over enforcement of the Clean Water Act from the state of Iowa. The DNR responded by issuing plans to improve water quality but cautioned that the downsized department was overmatched by the problem. Last fall the department allowed me to accompany environmental specialist Don Cunningham on an inspection of another New Fashion Pork facility, near Estherville. He told me that inspectors circle a facility—checking for cracks in the foundation that could leak manure or problems with venting fans—but do not enter the confinement as part of normal procedure. At the end of the walk-around, Cunningham told Jay Moore, New Fashion Pork’s environmental construction manager, that the company was past deadline for new soil samples and that a well on the property seemed to be closer to the confinement than claimed on the permit. (Moore later conceded this.) Cunningham informed Moore that there would be a formal notice of violation—the site’s second in 18 months. New paperwork would need to be submitted. After that, everything would proceed as before. Within days, the confinement’s pit was pumped as low as possible and the fields were injected with hundreds of thousands of gallons of manure. I asked Cunningham how such perfunctory inspection squared with the DNR’s own estimate that the Raccoon River watershed, which feeds directly into the Des Moines River, needed a 50 percent reduction in nitrate levels and a staggering 99 percent reduction in E. coli just to come into compliance with federal standards. He responded cautiously: he sticks to his job description, inspecting manure management plans, ensuring compliance with existing regulations, and reporting problems when he observes them. Cunningham doesn’t make the laws; he just enforces the laws the politicians give him. Jay Lausen realized that the DNR, under the thumb of an ag-friendly governor, would never intercede against New Fashion Pork—or any other hog producer. The only hope was to block construction at the local level. In advance of the April 2012 meeting of the Emmet County supervisors, at which New Fashion’s proposal would come to a vote, Lausen asked to address the board. He distributed copies of his research along with USDA data, showing that 60 percent of the property lay on the Des Moines River watershed, classified by the DNR as endangered. But Jay Moore came armed with statistics of his own, showing that the company supported 17 full-time employees in the county and tallying the tax dollars and other economic benefits to the local economy. Moore assured the board that his company understood small agricultural communities. “It’s still run as a family operation,” he said. “How many family-run operations have 320 employees?” Lausen retorted. “This is corporate farming.” spring 2014

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othing gets under Brad Freking’s skin

quite so much as when people in northern Iowa call him a corporate farmer. “Like we’re these big guys from out of state,” he said to me ruefully. New Fashion’s headquarters are barely 20 miles from Estherville. In the conference room where we sat, Hormel Spirit of Excellence plaques stood lined up on the mantel above a wide fireplace, and Freking sipped from a Hormel mug. He is a wiry man in his forties, soft-spoken and careful in choosing his words. He freely admitted that he had been advised against our meeting, but he said there was nothing to hide so he wasn’t going to duck my questions. “Call us a little bit unique in that,” he said. Freking grew up on a 200-head hog farm in Jackson County, Minnesota, graduating from the local high school in 1986 at the very height of the worst agricultural downturn since the Great Depression. With no prospects for farming at the time, he went first to South Dakota State University, where he got a degree in animal science, then continued on to veterinary school at the University of Minnesota. In telltale signs At the Des Moines Water Works, a petri dish contains colonies of coliform bacteria.

1994, he came home with his wife to found New Fashion. “It started extremely small,” he told me, “producing about 16,000 pigs a year.” But Freking’s company grew more slowly and more strategically than his competitors, so the downturn in the hog industry in 1998 presented an unusual opportunity. “We were, financially, in a very good position at that time,” he said. “So we started acquiring distressed sow farms.” That’s why New Fashion’s operation is so geographically diverse. Freking bought failing breeding barns from the Rockies to the Great Lakes, building what he calls a “sow base.” In 2004, just as this period of acquisition was ending, Iowa began exempting big packers from its vertical integration laws. New Fashion Pork, with its sow base expanded from fewer than 1,000 to more than 50,000, joined in the boom, building as fast as it could and aggressively investing in every link of the supply chain. Today, New Fashion Pork not only raises 1.2 million hogs per year—about half of those in some 50 wean-to-finish facilities across northern Iowa—but also owns hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and dozens of feed mills. It produces so much manure that it now markets its own line of fertilizer injectors. The company has been recognized by Hormel Foods as one of its top suppliers of gilt hogs (young females), and New Fashion processes its 3 4 onearth

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barrows (males) at its own packing plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, for export to Asia in partnership with four other producers, most notably Christensen Farms, under the name Triumph Foods. That plant processes 24,000 hogs per day, making it the second-largest hog kill in the United States. The result of all this integration, Freking told me, is that “we’re not only producing pigs. Now we’re producing pork.” The whole process is made possible by injecting cheap manure into cornfields. “It is a great model, if you think about it,” Freking said. “Here’s my farm, and I put my pig barn on my farm and then I take the organic nutrients out of that pig and put it on the farm to grow the corn to feed the pig. It’s very sustainable.” Freking allowed that not every company lives up to the standard he expects from his facilities, especially in cash-strapped times. “When I think about the acquisitions I did of failing farms,” he said, “most of them had environmental issues. That’s true from Wyoming to Indiana.” Still, given the construction standards imposed on waste pits and the piles of paperwork that must be completed to stay in compliance with the DNR, Freking and Moore both told me they saw no reason to believe that hog confinements contribute more to water contamination than small town water-treatment plants that flush their systems during flooding. Later, when I visited the laboratories at the Des Moines Water Works, I asked Dennis Hill, the DMWW’s microbiologist, about this argument. “Those little towns might as well straight-pipe their sewage to the river,” he scoffed. “Compared to what comes in from agriculture, it wouldn’t make any difference.”

scientists at the water works have been tracking steady increases in levels of nitrates and e. coli since the 1970s, when industrial agriculture hit its stride


ith its soaring, vaulted ceiling and

churchlike quiet, the filter building at the Des Moines Water Works can feel like a cathedral. Tucked into niches on either side of the tiled gallery, the filters themselves look like soaking pools at some longforgotten Turkish bath. But their green-hued waters are pumped in from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, then slowfiltered, up to 50,000 gallons at a time, through 100 tons of gravel and 130 tons of sand. Linda Kinman, the policy analyst and watershed advocate at DMWW, told me that this building has been in use since the 1940s. But the process it employs is ancient in its simplicity and has worked with time-tested efficiency—until recently. Scientists at the water works have been tracking steady increases in levels of nitrates and E. coli in the contributing watersheds since the 1970s, when industrial agriculture first hit its stride. But in the past decade those levels have started to pose greater and greater threats to public health, and last year the situation reached a crisis. The DMWW turned off its intakes from the two rivers and began drawing from alternative sources—lakes under its control, an aquifer storage system, the utility’s underground filtration and storage hold, and neighboring


waterworks. By late July, the water flowing through the pipes was fter Jay Lausen’s impassioned appeal to the registering 9.65 milligrams per liter of nitrates, just under the 10 mg/L county supervisors, a group of concerned citizens called a allowed by the EPA. Kinman was granted a face-to-face meeting with the public meeting to consider legal options for opposing the federal agency and the Iowa DNR to discuss ways of reducing nitrate proposed New Fashion Pork facility outside Estherville. loads—but came away with no assurances. More than 100 people gathered in the gymnasium of the “The political scene in Iowa right now is almost over‑the‑top suplocal Regional Wellness Center. Brad Freking went, too, portive of agriculture,” Kinman told me. and fielded more than an hour’s worth of questions. “We are pretty After the Iowa environmental groups filed notice of intent to sue in comfortable with the site,” he told the crowd, but by the end of the 2011, the EPA was finally forced to act. In July 2012 it issued a scath- evening he promised, “We’re going to pursue an alternative location ing critique of the DNR’s handling of the state’s factory farms, finding if possible.” And that’s exactly what they did. that it had failed to properly issue required permits for operating Freking told me he had gained “tremendous respect” for the Iowa such facilities, to administer inspections, to respond to manure spills Great Lakes Watershed and the rivers it feeds and had learned to and other environmental violations, and to assess adequate fines and consider community concerns before purchasing property or applypenalties when violations did occur. But nearly a year later, the state ing for a permit to build. “You understand the watersheds, and you had still failed to take any action. Given just stay out of them,” he said. “That’s the dangerous levels of nitrates at that our approach.” time—and the overall trend line of water Later, I recounted that conversation contamination—Kinman told me, “At to Lausen. I asked him if this might repsome point, we will violate.” resent a ray of hope—and a way forApparently fearing that the crisis ward. Sure, the EPA appeared cowed pork you eat with your breakfast eggs (whether would give the EPA leverage to interby political pressure and, yes, the Iowa it’s sausage, ham, or bacon) is humanely produced, cede, Governor Branstad took preempDepartment of Natural Resources, eco-friendly, and not poisoning our water? tive action. On May 20, 2013, he sent a hamstrung by the governor and the First, look for the USDA Organic seal. But rememletter to acting EPA Administrator Bob legislature, seemed unlikely to carry ber, organic certification does not require that hogs Perciasepe and Assistant Administraout more than minimal enforcement of or chickens have access to the outdoors, so there is tor Gina McCarthy, whom President the Clean Water Act. But maybe direct no guarantee that the pork is CAFO-free. Obama had nominated to helm the public pressure was enough to appeal Better is the Animal Welfare Approved label, agency. Branstad denounced CAFO to the conscience of these businesses. which certifies that animals have been raised in compliance inspections as “the ‘gotcha’ Lausen broke out in a broad smile. pasture conditions from birth to slaughter. Stanapproach.” He insisted that “the majority “You haven’t seen where they built dards are higher here, and there are relatively of discharges into Iowa’s waters are acciinstead, have you?” he asked. few approved producers, which can make finding dental spills” and claimed that runoff was By the time I arrived at the new site, these products a challenge. But the AWA website unavoidable because it was “caused by the sun had burned through the mornfeatures a search tool to aid your quest. Mother Nature.” He invited McCarthy ing rains. The cold of weeks before had The best option is to befriend a local farmer and to come to Iowa and meet with livestock turned into a brief, unseasonable warmbuy direct. My family bought its pork for the winindustry leaders. up. The sun was so bright, in fact, that ter from the well-maintained pastures of Hamilton Last August, McCarthy—who had we could see light glinting on the water Heritage Farm in Ceresco, Nebraska. Later I parjust been confirmed by the Senate— running off the newly fertilized fields ticipated in the slaughter of our hog at an off-site met with Farm Bureau members toward Brown Creek, right where it butcher. This may not be for everyone, but seeing under the picnic shelter at the Iowa passes under a bridge and bends into your hog raised reminds you that your bacon comes State Fairgrounds and pledged to esa stand of trees on its way to the Des from a living animal, not just a sealed package in tablish a “more trusting relationship Moines River. The fields surrounding the refrigerated section of the supermarket. —t.G. between EPA and the agriculture comthe New Fashion Pork facility, new and munity.” Jay Moore of New Fashion Pork told me, “It was just refresh- bright-white on the hill, drained directly into a DNR-maintained ing to hear her talk.” Within weeks, the EPA and Iowa had struck a wildlife management area. deal: the state would reopen hiring for 7 of the 14 positions eliminated The new site might seem absurd, but it deftly swings to the east, by the governor since 2011 and would allocate roughly $30 million avoiding Estherville and local opposition. But what about the people to water quality initiatives. downstream in Emmetsburg or Fort Dodge or the half-million people Scientists at DMWW point out that the Raccoon and Des Moines who depend on the river in Des Moines? For that matter, what about rivers have the highest and second-highest nitrate concentrations St. Louis and Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans? What about of the 42 major tributaries to the Mississippi. The $30 million alloca- everyone from here to the Gulf Coast who goes to the tap expecting to tion, they say, is just too little to address such an enormous problem. find clean, safe water? As long as the hog industry runs wild in Iowa, “I have four little grandkids,” Kinman said. She tells her daughter, that question will be harder and harder to answer. who lives in a rural community, not to give her children tap water. “There are companies that make special bottled water for infants. I Ted Genoways is OnEarth’s editor-at-large and the author of The Chain: Farm, said, ‘You buy that in the spring and the fall.’” Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, forthcoming from HarperCollins.

Green Eggs & Ham How do you make sure that the

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The rede By Ge or ge ll Ly ne

The folks at Isidore Recycling are very good at taking things apart.

waste not, want not From left: Isidore Recycling’s Lulu Kornspan, Kabira Stokes, Shaye Elliot, and Eric Grigsby.

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But they’re even better at putting broken things back together again.

photographs by jim herrington


the outskirts of Los Angeles’s Chinatown, in an

industrial neighborhood of low-slung, graffiti-bombed buildings made of cinderblock and corrugated steel, three men are hard at work inside a warehouse. Though they’re surrounded by all manner of computer, communications, and video technology—keyboards and cell phones and screens are everywhere—not one of them is typing a word or crunching any numbers. If it’s accurate to say that these men work for a technology-related start-up, it should quickly be added that this isn’t the kind most people would envision. These keyboards are dusty; the screens are dark. The atmosphere is about as cutting-edge as the old computer equipment, giant fax machines, dinosaur-era dot-matrix printers, and superannuated VCRs that share space in this potter’s field for electronica. One man is moving heavy pallets across the floor. Another, bent over a workbench overflowing with computer motherboards, scours the shiny bounty of their circuitry like a cyberpunk prospector. The third sifts through a small mountain of monitors: beige relics from the not-so-distant era when the desktop still reigned supreme. All three work for Isidore Recycling, a company with a seemingly straightforward mission: to find the hidden value in what others have cast aside. Since its founding in 2011, Isidore (named for St. Isidore of Seville, widely considered to be the patron saint of computing) has intercepted more than 150 tons of discarded high-tech gadgetry. Every year, electronics consumers around the world generate at least 20 million tons of “e-waste.” In 2012, according to the United Nations, Americans were responsible for 10.3 million tons, only onequarter of which was recycled. All of this poses a real problem—as well as a real opportunity. The salvageable commodities to be found in our e-waste, mainly precious metals like gold and copper, share space with a number of hazardous and difficult-to-extract materials such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. For its part, the city of Los Angeles currently recycles less than 25 percent—about 1,500 tons—of its annual e-waste output. Kabira Stokes, Isidore’s founder and CEO, looks at all of this high-tech trash and sees in it a veritable gold mine (or copper mine, depending). Through a process known as de-manufacturing, her employees collect and sort unwanted electronics donated by individuals or companies. Salvageable metals, plastics, and wire are bundled and sold to certified processors en route to being recycled into new goods. Items that aren’t completely beyond redemption are repaired, cleaned up, and resold. But at Isidore, the philosophy of redemption doesn’t stop with motherboards and monitors. The men working the floor are themselves part of a reclamation project: each of them came to work at Isidore after serving hard time in California’s correctional system. As ex-prisoners, they are generally considered among the least employable individuals in society. But if the word “recycling” means anything to Stokes, it means believing in second chances and salvation. From a purely business standpoint, it also means capitalizing on the considerable energies and talents of an overlooked, undervalued segment of the labor force. As Stokes puts it: “It doesn’t make sense that just because someone messes up and serves time, we never actually forgive them. It’s not working. And it’s a waste of value.” the first quarter of 2013 was Isidore’s best on record:

Stokes and her employees collected and processed 20 tons of e-waste in that three-month period. Then, in early May, an electrical fire 3 8 onearth

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ravaged the company’s warehouse, destroying much of its inventory and forcing it into temporary space. “The silver lining is that we got to reboot,” says Stokes. The tall, blond, 35-year-old Philadelphia native is clearly someone who believes that setbacks—even outright disasters—carry within them the seeds of rebirth. As a graduate student in public policy at the University of Southern California, Stokes studied the criminal justice system, particularly the challenges and roadblocks routinely faced by ex-prisoners as they attempt to reenter society. Her research led her to an obvious question: “What are we doing when folks come out of prison? Because 98 percent of them do.” In graduate school, Stokes also took courses exploring the idea of sustainable cities, which in turn led her to take a closer look at the

impact emerging industries were having on Southern California’s land, air, and water. She began to see how her two fields of study were complementary: both were concerned with what it takes to make a community healthy, in a holistic sense. Later, while working at Green For All, an organization founded by the social activist (and NRDC board member) Van Jones and dedicated to bringing green jobs to urban areas, Stokes visited Recycle Force, an Indianapolis-based fullservice recycling facility co-founded by Gregg Keesling and staffed largely by ex-prisoners. Suddenly her varied public policy interests cohered into a single, unified vision. After returning to Los Angeles, Stokes posted a query on a job-seeking and networking website aimed at sustainability-minded students, professionals, and employers. In it she announced that she “wanted to start an e-waste company that would hire formerly incarcerated people. And I was looking for a co-founder.” She got only two responses. One came from Aaron Malloy, an MBA candidate at the University of Southern California. Malloy’s profile certainly suggested that he’d be a good fit for the sort of enterprise Stokes was imagining. In addition to the business degree he was pursuing, he had a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and had worked for a nonprofit that prepared at-risk high school students for the job-seeking and educational challenges facing them. But something else distinguished him. Malloy, an African American

who grew up in working-class Sacramento, had served nearly seven years in California correctional facilities for participating in a robbery at the age of 16. His personal saga of downfall and redemption, combined with his business acumen, seemed to embody all that Stokes hoped Isidore could become: a company that made money, promoted sustainability, and created jobs for those who had paid their debt to society and now deserved to reenter it. Together Stokes and Malloy leveraged $450,000 worth of seed money into a start-up that began attracting attention from the moment it opened for business. The pair’s dedication to a much broader definition of “recycling” was summed up by Isidore’s mission statement: “building a world in which our resources—both human and natural—are valued, not wasted.”

If the word “recycling” means anything to Kabira Stokes, it means believing in second chances and salvation

Three years later—despite setbacks like the fire in May and Malloy’s departure in August—Stokes still believes that the key to Isidore’s competitive advantage is buried within that mission statement. The ethos of creative reuse, she maintains, extends not only to objects but to people. Given the terms of their release agreements, new hires at Isidore have a powerful impetus to remain sober and stable. Given the discrimination they’ve faced, they’re inclined to be self-motivated. In other words, Stokes says, “They’re job-ready.” All they need is an employer who sees the flecks of gold just beneath the cracked shell, someone “who can understand that they’re going to need to go to court, or that they’re going to need to go to their N.A. [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting. We’re that employer.” When Shaye Elliot was offered a job at Isidore in 2013, he

was on the verge of giving up hope. When I ask him why, the 44-yearold native of Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, quietly volunteers that he has been in and out of prison since his teens, serving a total of 17 years for various infractions. With a record like that, he says, he figured upon his last release that he’d be lucky to find a job in construction. The recession of 2008 closed off that particular avenue. Still, that didn’t stop Elliot from looking for warehouse work, driving jobs, janitor shifts. What was worse than the pavement pounding, he says, was the silence from potential employers who never bothered

to call him back. To him it suggested that even though he had done his time as far as the state of California was concerned, in the eyes of the business community he was serving a life sentence. Stokes and Malloy gave him a chance. These days, Elliot tells me, he wakes up feeling grateful for the opportunity to come in every morning and de-manufacture electronics—but he’s even more grateful to be judged for what he’s doing right now, not for what he has done in the past. At Isidore, he says, “you’re not looked down on for your history. The people here can handle your history.” Feeling essential rather than marginalized has fostered a new sense of dedication and self-determination that looks and sounds a lot like pride. Eric Grigsby, a slender, athletically built 24-year-old who helped train Elliot, has rotated through nearly every stage of Isidore’s recycling process, from de-manufacturing to repair to online resale. The time he has spent taking things apart and putting them back together again has allowed him to reconnect with his youthful dreams of becoming a carpenter or an architect—dreams that were derailed when Grigsby was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon at the age of 17. “After I got out, I tried everywhere looking for a job,” he says. Like Elliot, Grigsby didn’t receive a single call back. Stokes and Malloy, however, discerned a natural energy and intelligence. Over time Grigsby became one of Isidore’s most trusted and experienced employees, and he now trains others in the company’s day-to-day operations. Accompanying the new job and the new skills is a new sense of self-worth. With a laugh, Grigsby relates how friends and family pester him for free IT advice. (“My Granny calls me 24/7 with questions!”) With his employer’s enthusiastic blessing, he recently announced that he would be leaving Isidore to attend an electronics school that will guarantee him union affiliation upon successful completion. After graduating, he pictures himself moving to Atlanta, buying a house, maybe even a little extra land. Stokes has said many times that her goal is to create jobs that are more than entry-level positions, “to get folks on career ladders so they’re not making minimum wage for the rest of their lives.” Given the rate at which our ever-advancing technology turns last year’s must-have gadget into this year’s e-antique, the stream of e-waste isn’t likely to ebb anytime soon. In fact, all signs indicate that the stream will swell into a torrent. If we’re serious about minimizing this torrent’s negative environmental impact, we’ll need to create e-waste recycling systems like Isidore’s on a macro scale. Stokes isn’t just creating jobs; she’s creating jobs in a genuine growth industry. After the fire and Malloy’s departure, Stokes’s staff had to rally to keep the company alive. Brian Fox, a newer employee who had been in charge of repairs, rose to the challenge of filling Malloy’s shoes and was eventually promoted to warehouse manager. Isidore kept picking up new clients, including the city of Pico-Rivera and—auspiciously— MGM, one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. (It’s a small account at the moment, says Stokes, but there’s plenty of room for growth in the relationship, if all goes well.) “Whether you’re locked up or your business burns down, you have to keep fighting,” says Stokes. By last fall, thanks to that fighting spirit, the renewed dedication of her staff, the loyalty of old clients, and the addition of new ones, Isidore found itself operating once more at its pre-fire performance and productivity levels. If ex-cons and computers deserve second chances, then karma has apparently decreed that Isidore Recycling deserves them too. spring 2014

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ancestral land Blackfeet activist Lori New Breast worries about the desecration of the “Backbone of the World.�


great divide montana’s energy wars are pitting neighbor against neighbor along the iconic rocky mountain front BY g e o r g e b l a c k

frigid day in early December, and the

next megaload was headed north. Moving at walking speed, it would lumber through Choteau, Montana, population 1,700, in the dead of night, carrying heavy oil-drilling equipment to the Canadian tar sands. Even by megaload standards, this one was a monster: 376 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 18 high. It had already been shipped from South Korea to Umatilla, Oregon, on the Columbia River, before winding its way along the Lewis and Clark


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Trail through Idaho and western Montana, branching onto State Highway 200 through the beautiful valley of the Blackfoot—made famous by Norman Maclean’s fly-fishing novella, A River Runs Through It—and then hitting Route 287 about 40 miles south of Choteau and heading north up the Rocky Mountain Front. It was hard to imagine how the driver of a vehicle half again as long as a New York City block proposed to navigate the hairpin turn around the handsome 1906 cut-stone Teton County courthouse, where a Nativity scene had just been erected on the front lawn. But assuming he managed it, he would then steer his load up Choteau’s main street, insulated in his heated cab against the glacial cold, past the two dinosaur statues and the ice cream parlor and the tiny art deco Roxy Theater (which, appropriately enough, was screening a movie called Frozen), past Grizzly Sports and the Elk Country Grill, until he could pick up his pace again on the outskirts of town. From there he would angle away from the jagged peaks of the Front, taking a hard right across the Blackfeet Reservation and then passing two giant wind farms and the new transmission line that carries their power to markets hundreds of miles away. Finally reaching the interstate, he would cross the tracks of the BNSF railroad, whose mile-long unit trains are carrying ever-larger consignments of oil from the booming Bakken field of North Dakota and eastern Montana to refineries on the West Coast, before presenting his paperwork at the Canadian border near the sacred Sweet Grass Hills and finally arriving, 500 miles farther on, at his destination in the devastated boreal forests of central Alberta. Oil fields and oil trains, fracking rigs and megaloads, wind farms and power lines: Montana is being steadily redefined as a nodal point in our “all of the above” energy boom. Eager for tax revenues to boost a fragile local economy, some people in Choteau would like to see the drill rigs move into the pristine lands along the Front. Others— ranchers, hunters, and backcountry outfitters for the most part—have spent years fighting to keep the fossil fuel industry away from the Front’s vast national forests and federally protected wilderness. Seventy miles north, in Browning, the hub of the Blackfeet country, sentiments are similarly divided. Crushed by poverty and struggling with 70 percent unemployment, the tribe has leased almost the whole of its 3,000-square-mile reservation to oil companies, right up to the edge of Glacier National Park. Many tribal leaders crave the potential flow of royalties from the oil wells. Others felt that way until they were spooked by the recent arrival of hydraulic fracturing and its attendant risks. Others still would prefer to harness the power of the winds that howl down from the Canadian prairie. What is happening along the Rocky Mountain Front, in other words, is what happens whenever big energy arrives in small places. It of4 2 onearth

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veteran fighter For Gene Sentz, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act is the culmination of a 40-year effort.

fers a devil’s bargain: a choice between the lure of prosperity and the preservation of place. It pits neighbor against neighbor, family against family, and whatever the eventual outcome, a lot of people are probably going to be unhappy.


an Lindseth is the joint owner of a company

called Montana Overthrust Management. As that name implies, the story of the Front is rooted in geology, which shapes our social and economic affairs as surely as chemistry and biology determine our physical existence. More than 80 million years ago, islands as large as Japan slammed into what is now North America, corrugating the earth’s crust, pushing and compressing a layer cake of rock 300 miles long and four miles thick into present-day Montana and Alberta. All this compression and folding and faulting built up what geologists call an imbricate thrust system, in which the strata are piled up on one another, overlapping like scales on a fish. In some places, oddly, the oldest rocks have ended up on top, a reversal of the normal geologic order. After the eastward movement of this enormous rock pile ground to a halt, erosion fashioned the mountains into the unique landscape we see today: ragged, windswept peaks and pinnacles, walls and reefs, all cut by canyons and deeply scoured glacial valleys, rising almost perpendicular from the prairie. We call it the Rocky Mountain Front; the Blackfeet call it the Backbone of the World. Deep beneath the surface, deposits of oil and natural gas lie trapped

illustration by bruce morser

in folds, cracks, pockets, and reservoirs. Men have been trying to get at this wealth since 1902, when a prospector named Sam Somes found oil near Swiftcurrent Creek, at the edge of what is now Glacier National Park. It has been a story of modest booms and long busts, but it’s the enduring hope of a big play that keeps men like Dan Lindseth in business. He and I drove out to Choteau’s miniature airport one morning to meet his partner, Harold Yeager, a cattle rancher with a sideline in equipment maintenance. We found him working on a feed truck, and his workshop was filled with the rich, yeasty smell of half-fermented grain. On the wall of the cozy adjoining office a portrait of a white-haired Indian chief hinted at the two men’s attitude toward federal regulations, which they blame for hindering the pursuit of oil and gas. The accompanying text read: “When told the reason for daylight saving time the Old Indian said, ‘Only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket.” Lindseth and Yeager both grew up in Choteau. While Yeager never left, Lindseth moved away to pursue a career with IBM, returning in 2002 after he retired. Soon after that, he said, a Canadian company, Startech, decided to pursue drilling permits 15 miles or so north of town, exploiting a lease that predated a 1997 moratorium on oil and gas development on public lands along the Front. “That led to a big scrap with the environmentalists,” Lindseth said. “Lots of folks were adamantly opposed. In the end, the BLM [the federal Bureau of Land Management] said no. I guess they had bigger fish to fry.” This was frustrating to those around Choteau who still recalled the income spikes from earlier mini-booms, he said. “They’d say, gee whiz, I remember I sent my kid to college, or bought a new truck, added another 40 acres. Now they were saying, with kind of a heavy heart, well, that’s probably the last we’ve seen of oil and gas.” But Lindseth and Yeager reminded their neighbors that leasing mineral rights on privately owned land, right up to the boundaries of these public lands—the Lewis and Clark National Forest, three wilderness areas including the legendary Bob Marshall, and Glacier National Park—was a different matter. “We told them, you can do anything you want on your own property,” Lindseth said. “Drill a hole wherever you like, see what you find. Ranchers here are land-rich but cash-poor, and Teton County could benefit from taxes on oil production. So Harold and I had a couple of beers, talked it over, and said, what if we could find companies to take up those leases?” The two men went knocking on doors, eventually putting together a package of about 125,000 contiguous leasable acres, enough to attract another Canadian outfit, Primary Petroleum. Primary started drilling in 2008, four wells at first and then, in 2011, nine more, three of which were fracked. The company entered a joint venture with a much bigger player, Los Angeles–based Occidental Petroleum, and expanded its Montana holdings to 370,000 acres, representing a $41 million investment. That may be small potatoes by oil industry standards, but it was enough for Lindseth and Yeager to think they might be on to something big. And some of the strikes seemed highly promising, Yeager said. He reached for an old juice bottle that was sitting on a shelf and unscrewed the cap so that I could savor the sharp reek of the black gunk inside. But then, at the end of 2012, “Oxy” pulled out. Several of the wells were capped after failing to produce commercially viable quantities of oil, and that seemed to be that—again. But Lindseth is an optimist by nature. “We’ve done the most comprehensive exploration that’s ever

from nrdc Energy smarts

bobby mcenaney Deputy director of NRDC’s western renewable energy project, based in Washington, D.C.

We think of Montana as one of our most beautiful, unspoiled states, but that’s changing, isn’t it? No matter how remote or pristine a place may be, sooner or later dirty energy will come calling. In Montana right now this means a host of problems, whether it’s megaloads of equipment barreling through on its way to Canada’s tar sands or mile-and-a-half-long trains carrying coal that’s being mined strictly for export. The corporations behind these schemes have no real regard for the communities that are impacted, and the threats will be never-ending unless we find a more rational approach to energy development. Obviously some very powerful forces are at play here. So what are the alternatives? By itself, the threat posed by dirty energy is enormous. Add in the damage occurring as a result of climate change, and the problems confronting Montana can seem overwhelming. But we know that if we substantially increase the use of clean energy, it can make a real difference in addressing climate change. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should sugarcoat clean-energy development, because it can also have a real impact on wildlife and viewsheds. So the solutions can be complex. As a native of Montana, what changes have you seen in the way people think about these issues? Growing up as a child of the West, one of my more vivid memories was visiting the Berkeley Pit in Butte, which was a massive open-pit copper mine that now has the distinction of being one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites. The nightmarish image of that pit and its toxic legacy were a glaring symbol of the gold rush mentality of our past. But Montana has gone out of its way to learn from those painful mistakes, as you can see from its efforts to site renewable energy projects in the right places. And because the deployment of clean energy is still in its infancy, we can approach it in a more deliberate and scientific manner, planning ahead of time with land management agencies and private land trusts to permanently protect areas like the Rocky Mountain Front, where any kind of energy development is inappropriate. Some wind and solar companies are already embracing “smart from the start” siting for their projects, which places dirty energy on notice that the old way of doing business is no longer acceptable.

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been done along the Front,” he said. “We have a boatload of good new data for this whole area, thousands of acres of 3-D seismic work.” So perhaps this time would be different.


ater, as we drove out into the backcountry

toward the mountains, there were few signs of human life other than an isolated Hutterite farm colony and a cold war– era Minuteman nuclear missile silo, where some soldiers had piled out of a Humvee and appeared to be engaged in some kind of inspection. We saw capped wells and reclaimed wells and one working well with a nodding pump jack, a row of storage tanks, and a cluster of low buildings. “When a well like this is active,” Lindseth said, “you’ll have six guys working 12-hour shifts. They build a little home out here; one guy even put in a hot tub.” He was keen for me to appreciate the limited environmental footprint of the drilling operations, and it was true that several of the wells were set in dips and coulees, miles back from the Front and fairly inconspicuous. “We live in a pretty nice place here, and I guess it’s obvious we don’t want to ruin it,” he said. But another way of looking at the modest scale of the enterprise, I suggested, was that the bonanza they’d hoped for hadn’t really materialized. Well, Lindseth acknowledged, this was technically part of the Bakken formation, but while the oil deposits were closer to the surface than in the eastern part of the state and North Dakota, the geology was problematic. “It’s just difficult to get it out of these rocks,” he said. “Up to Highway 89 it’s all prairie soils, but you go four or five miles west and you start hitting the overthrust, and it’s much harder to drill.” Outside the tiny, half-abandoned town of Bynum we passed a hangarlike building surrounded by cranes, shipping containers, and modular metal frames twice the size of semi-trailers. As Lindseth explained what was going on here, it was clear that being at the crossroads of an oil boom involved more than the presence of a few modestly productive drill rigs. Two companies had set up shop in Bynum recently, he told me, one from Texas, the other from Mississippi. Their purpose was to construct giant drilling equipment for the tar sands. After all, why import it from Asia when you could build it right here, close to the Canadian border? The problem, he said, was that the companies, having promised to create hundreds of well-paying local jobs, were stymied by the delays in building the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands bitumen from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Absent that, he said, the big producers in Canada were skittish about signing too many contracts for future megaloads. As we drove west toward the Teton Canyon, the mood—Harold Yeager’s in particular—seemed to sour. This was more obviously beautiful country than the sere, undulating benchland we’d driven over earlier, and the area around the Yeager ranch was a patchwork of reminders of the intimate scale on which the battle over oil and gas development was being fought here. Ear Mountain, named for its distinctive shape, reared up ahead of us, defining the face of the Front. To the north side of the canyon road was Dusty Crary’s spread—Crary, whom I planned to meet later, being a leader of the fight to keep out the oil companies. A little to the south, next door to Yeager’s property, was the Durr Ranch, now owned by the Nature Conservancy. Nearby was the former home of A. B. “Bud” Guthrie Jr., author of the most famous book ever written about Montana, The Big Sky. Next to that, David Letterman’s Deep Creek Ranch, with its small herd of buffalo. 4 4 onearth s p r i n g 2 0 1 4

We reached Yeager’s place at last. As we pulled off the road, he pointed out a low butte to the east. This is famous dinosaur country, and one time, he said, he’d found part of a backbone entombed in a 1,000-pound chunk of rock. “My great-grandad came out here in 1876 and proved up the homestead, but the family wouldn’t join him at first,” he said. “It was the year of Custer’s last stand, and they thought we were still fighting the Indians. Later we had 1,600 head of cattle. Used to do a four-day trail up to the rez, sleeping on the ground, your eyes would be like mud pies in the morning.” A pugnacious little tan dog sprinted out into the yard to greet us, closely followed by three others. “I need ’em to drive off the bears,” Yeager said. “I had one in the kitchen door and another in the feed shed.” He gestured at the leader of the pack. “Most dogs will just bark at a bear,” he said, “but this female will launch herself straight at it.” He was visibly upset now. “We never used to have bears here when I was a kid,” he said. “And there are the elk. I mean, everyone likes the elk. But then they start moving into our hay grounds and wheat fields.” Federal protection of the Front has allowed charismatic species like these to range freely again across the prairie lands and river bottoms, just as they did in the days of Lewis and Clark. When ranchers agreed to conservation easements on their property, that made things worse, Yeager complained. “You read some of the terms of these easements,” he said, “you can’t hardly go out behind the barn to take a leak.” His grumbling expanded to take in the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act and federal regulations in general and wildlife organizations that prowled the streets of New York raising millions of dollars from gullible rich people. “What’s our biggest problem in this country?” he asked. “Ninety percent of people would say the government.” And before long, inevitably it seemed, we’d moved on to Obamacare.


arold yeager and dan

the oil companies have been in and out of the Blackfeet Reservation for decades, but it’s always been a story of boomlet and bust

Lindseth have been pushing oil and gas development on the Front for a decade, but Gene Sentz has been fighting it for almost four. I went to visit Sentz at his home in Choteau, a modest house on a quiet street, painted the color of a robin’s egg. Like Lindseth and Yeager, Sentz is in his seventies. He has a dense white beard, a genial manner that disguises a good amount of steely obstinacy, and the remnants of a West Virginia twang. He came to Choteau in 1970 to take a seasonal job as a wilderness ranger. “They gave me a horse and a mule and a map and sent me out there,” he said. He loved it, and stayed. Yet despite living here for close to half a century, working for most of that time as a backcountry horse packer, his background still causes some locals to regard him as an outsider. He did a stint in the Peace Corps, then worked as a schoolteacher. His wife, Linda, is a nurse. They met in Nepal. Sentz and a local taxidermist named Roy Jacobs, whose fa-

on the rez The poverty rate among Montana’s Blackfeet is more than double the statewide average.

ther owned the Pioneer Bar in Choteau, started working to protect the Front back in 1977, he told me as we sat at his kitchen table eating our way through a plate of Linda’s homemade cookies. The Forest Service and the BLM were gung ho about developing public lands in those days, he said, and by the early 1980s the oil companies were lined up to do seismic studies of the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall, which is often described as the crown jewel of the American wilderness system. “We called that ‘Bomb the Bob,’” Sentz said. He and Jacobs were the core of a loose-knit group that called itself the Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front. “We’d get together and raise hell and write lots of letters,” Sentz said, and in the end they succeeded in keeping the drillers out of the Bob. But pretty much everything else along the Front was leased, including parts of the Badger-Two Medicine area, a wild and spectacular piece of land that is hedged in between the Continental Divide, Glacier National Park, and the Blackfeet Reservation. The little group’s efforts proceeded in peaks and dips that tracked the ups and downs of the oil industry until the mid-1990s, when the Forest Service appointed a new supervisor in its Great Falls, Montana, office. Her name was Gloria Flora, and she was a transformative figure, raising the fight over the Rocky Mountain Front to national prominence. “We didn’t know what to make of her at first,” Sentz said. “We were all saying, wonder who this lady is, she’s a landscape architect, and what do they know about these things? But of course she was the best thing that ever happened to us.” In 1997 Flora placed 350,000 acres of public land along the Front off-limits to development for a decade. The reaction of those who wanted to drill and mine and log public lands has been compared to the response of southerners to civil rights workers in

the 1960s. The following year, the Forest Service reassigned Flora to a backwater posting in Nevada, where she lasted only a few months before resigning in protest at what she considered the agency’s spinelessness. After that, she became an outspoken critic of the drill-baby-drill policies of the Bush-Cheney administration. But would 350,000 acres be enough? That, Sentz said, fastforwarding, brought us up to 2006, by which time the original nucleus of friends had thrown in with a number of state and national groups to form the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front. At the end of that year, Montana’s Democratic senator, Max Baucus, steered a bill through Congress that barred all new oil, gas, and mineral development on public lands along the Front. Even so, there was little that could be done to protect private land. “Landowners out here on the flats can lease anything they want, and most of them have,” Sentz said. These were your neighbors, it was a fact of life, and you had to accept it.


t this point in his story, there was a clatteriNG

and banging at the door, and a man in a cowboy hat came into the kitchen, stamping snow off his boots. “Dusty,” Sentz said, “you got here right on time. I was just getting to your part.” Dusty Crary removed his coat and hat, accepted a cup of coffee from Linda, declined a chaser of Yukon Jack whiskey, and pulled up a chair. “Did you get your machinery fixed?” Sentz asked him. “Nah, it’s all tore up,” Crary answered. “But I got my pickup going.” “Are they still working on your tractor?” “Oh, he had to go get some parts.” “Oh, gosh. Well, did you get your critters fed?” “Yeah, what I needed to. I got my backhoe going, and I got a SPRING 2 0 1 4

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open range Dusty Crary owns Four Seasons Cattle in Choteau and runs a backcountry outfitting business.

map by mike reagan

set of spares I can strap on the front of the backhoe bucket to lift those bales.” The Crary ranch where all this business was going on had been bought by Dusty’s greatgrandfather, a dentist by training, back in 1930. “All he wanted to do was come out to Montana and be a cowboy and hunt and have a ranch,” Crary told me. “So here they lit. But instead of ranching he hung up his shingle and started pulling teeth.” His wife opened the first theater in Choteau. For silent movies, she provided the piano sound track. Dusty Crary was born in 1960. “My sister and I are the first in the family actually born and raised on the ranch,” he said, “so I guess we’re kind of bastard fourthgeneration.” These distinctions matter in Choteau society. “If you’re pre-1900, like the Yeagers,” he said, “that’s a little different, and rightfully so. Those guys had a lot of pride, they came here when it was really tough, and they started from scratch.” Dusty’s father and Harold Yeager had been “good acquaintances,” he went on, until Doug Crary was slammed against a fence and crushed to death by an angry bull in 1996. After that, the growing dispute over oil and gas and wilderness and wildlife put a strain on relations between the two families—although neighbors are still neighbors, and Yeager’s son, Lane, still helps out sometimes with haying on the Crary ranch. This kind of local intimacy and shared history, a desire not to do your neighbors harm even when you are at bitter odds, turned out to be a defining aspect of the work that Sentz and Crary have done since 2006. Their goal at that point was to craft a piece of legislation, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, that would permanently preserve as much of the Front as possible—to the degree such things can ever be permanent. Again, Baucus would be the lead sponsor. This surprised a good number of people in Montana, given the senator’s reputation as a staunch defender of agricultural interests. “But I think he also really likes wild country,” Sentz said. “He’s been out here quite a bit, he’s climbed these mountains, he’s hiked in the Bob Marshall and in Glacier.” (And, he might have added, Baucus was only being faithful to the Montana Constitution, which guarantees its citizens “the right to a clean and healthful environment.”) In late November, just before I got to Choteau, Baucus’s bill sailed through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee without dissent. It annexed 67,000 acres to the Bob and designated another 208,000 as a “conservation management area” open to a limited amount of recreation, motorized use, and grazing. This new protected acreage hadn’t been designed by folks in faraway offices

studying GIS imagery, Crary said, but by people sitting around kitchen tables, much as we were doing now, and thrashing it out, acre by acre, drainage by drainage, ranch by ranch, based on an intimate knowledge of the terrain and those who lived there. “We fought and argued with each other for three years until we finally came up with what we did,” he said. “And the thing I’m most proud of is that virtually everybody who started stayed. We had some core principles from the get-go, and one was that this couldn’t disrupt anyone’s livelihood or way of life. It was never, well, if one guy gets bulldozed that’s for the greater good, and those are the casualties of war, you know?” Even so, there were those like Harold Yeager who made no secret of their distaste for the bill. Crary looked pained. “You agree to disagree,” he said. “It’s not for me to judge what someone else gets in spirituality from wild country. No one side is holier than the other. Humans are what humans are, on all sides of the spectrum, and I’ve never yet not learned more and tuned my perspective by listening to people who are polar different than me.” Did that apply even to fossil fuel development? I asked. He thought about it. “Harold and Dan,” he said, “I respect their opinions, and I don’t think they’re crazy for wanting oil and gas. I mean, I drive diesel pickups and diesel tractors. But what frightens me is what oil and gas do to these towns, the landscape alteration.” I said that Yeager and Lindseth seemed to worry about that, too, that they’d talked about the havoc the oil and gas boom had inflicted on the Bakken—the man camps, the sexual assaults, the crystal meth, the methane flares lighting up the night sky, the one-bedroom apartments renting for $2,000 a month. Yeager had described boomtowns like Sidney in eastern Montana as a “cesspool” and said that Choteau wanted no part of it. The town would put the brakes on before that ever happened, Lindseth had added. Crary shook his head. “I’m sure Harold and Dan don’t want all that to happen, but it won’t be up to them,” he said. “There’s nothing like the raw power of petroleum, and these things get out of control real fast.”


arly next day, I went to Browning to meet

Lori New Breast, an outspoken opponent of fracking on the Blackfeet Reservation, and Jeri Lawrence, the tribe’s leading advocate of wind power and until two years ago head of the Blackfeet Renewable Energy Program. The highway edged closer to the Front as I drove north, slicing across the Badger–Two Medicine SPRING 2 0 1 4

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country, where a bitter lawsuit was under way over a controversial drilling lease. There were 18 inches of fresh snow on the mountains, and the face of the Front was lit rose pink by the morning sun, which was rising in a fireball over the prairie. When I pulled up at the Glacier Peaks Casino, it was 23 below. New Breast showed up a few minutes late, apologetic. “Couldn’t get my car door open,” she said. “It froze shut.” Then she grinned. “But at least you didn’t get our usual 35-mile-an-hour breeze.” If one defining feature of this wild landscape is its beauty, the other is wind. Once upon a time, when the Blackfeet were masters of this territory, all the way from the North Saskatchewan River, 300 miles north of the Canadian line, down to Yellowstone Lake, it was said that the wind blew so strong along the Backbone of the World that it could knock a warrior clean out of his saddle. Montana ranks second in the nation (after Texas) in wind energy potential, and nowhere does the wind blow harder than on the reservation. A few years ago, up on Snowslip Mountain, the wind gauge clocked a record gust of 164 miles an hour. When New Breast arrived, Lawrence and I had already been chatting for a while with Earl Old Person, the 84-year-old chief of the Blackfeet and a 60-year veteran of the tribal council, who had stopped by on his way to a college football game in Missoula, the Montana Grizzlies against the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. It was a slow day, he said. Council business was paralyzed by an acrimonious dispute that has dragged on for almost two years now, with personality clashes, charges of financial malfeasance, and a series of controversial suspensions of council members. Old Person said he’d never seen anything like the current dysfunction of the tribal leadership. Back in the 1950s, he told me, he’d acted as interpreter for the elders. “They didn’t speak English, they had no education,” he said. “But they had better sense.” The casino was closed for the day, he explained, to mark the passing of Dewey Heavy Runner, a respected elder and descendant of the chief whose smallpox-ridden camp on the Marias River was wiped out by the U.S. Second Cavalry in January 1870, on a subzero morning much like this one, leaving 173 dead and putting an end to any further thoughts of resistance to white settlement. After that came the extermination of the buffalo, the suppression of the Blackfeet language, and the terrible “starvation winter” of 1883–1884, when a chief named Almost-a-Dog kept track of the deaths by cutting notches in a willow stick, until he reached 555 and ran out of space. In exchange for these privations, the Blackfeet were instructed in the raising of beef cattle, encouraged to plant vegetable gardens, and taught their ABCs. Since the white man arrived, in other words, they have rarely been the architects of their own choices. Oil companies have been in and out of the rez for decades, but it’s always been a tale of boomlet and bust, as it has along the rest of the Front. Old Person told me a story that was emblematic of this cycle, about a famous strike in the 1950s at a well that had been leased from 87-year-old Otter Woman Morning Gun. “That was a big celebration,” he said. “The old lady busted out champagne over the rig and all. But it only lasted a couple of weeks, and then nothing else happened.” It turned out that New Breast was one of the heirs to the Morning Gun site. A new well pad was being laid there, she said, and I saw it later, tucked away behind a low ridge west of town. She’d refused to sign a new lease on the property, but she’d been in the minority. While she was no fan of the oil and gas industry, she said she understood the economic pressures that drove people into its embrace. “My great4 8 onearth

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grandmother used to say, don’t blame no one,” she said. “Some of my relatives barely have enough for gas money and food. Come and sign; here’s a $20 bill. And around here a $20 bill is a lot of money.” By 2010 the royalties from oil had begun to flow again. Three companies—Denver-based Anschutz and two Texas outfits, Newfield and Rosetta—had leased almost every acre of the reservation. The Newfield and Rosetta leases alone had brought in $22 million, I was told later by Roger “Sassy” Running Crane, who had negotiated the deals as the tribe’s chairman of economic development. But then, last March, Anschutz pulled out of all but five of its wells (one of which was on the Morning Gun site). The company issued a rather delphic statement, saying only that the yield was not enough to justify continued investment. Dan Lindseth, back in Choteau, surmised that Anschutz, like others before it, had been stymied by the difficult geology. These folded rocks were just too tough to drill. Despite their limited scale, the fracking operations had unnerved a lot of people on the reservation. They worried especially about the safety of their water. That refrain is echoed in every fracking field in the country, but here there was a difference: water is sacred. In Browning there were all sorts of alarming rumors about the technology, New Breast said, but no one had ever explained it clearly to

prairie power Two big wind farms near Ethridge, Montana, generate enough clean energy to supply about 70,000 homes.

people—no one, that is, except the oil companies themselves. “I went to a meeting at the federal building with this oil and gas dude from Denver,” she said—which I assumed meant from Anschutz. “He looks like he’s stepped out of an L. L. Bean catalog and he puts on what I call the cartoon about fracking, kind of an animated Bugs Bunny explanation. It’s s-o-o-o safe, he says.” She snorted. In 2012 New Breast and a number of friends formed a group they called Blackfeet Women Against Fracking. They went on a 100-mile “water walk” to dramatize what they saw as a threat to sacred sites, used social media to broadcast their skepticism, scrutinized the small print of new oil and gas leases, and urged people to watch the documentary Gasland, with its startling images of tap water catching fire in Colorado. Fracking to her was the perfect expression of a deep cultural divide. “In our Indian way of thinking, everything is equal, the earth is a living thing,” she said. “In the other way, the earth is our unending grocery store. When I hear about fracking, I say, oh my God, what’s going to happen to the berries or the earth medicines that I gather? I’m scared now to go and collect anything on the Little Badger [River], west of the fracking sites. I cannot vouch for these things. And what happens here is felt all over the earth. The headwaters move from here, the birds move from here, the seeds move from here, the wind moves from here.”


eri lawrence, a soft-spoken younger woman

of Blackfeet and Assiniboine descent, joined the conversation when it turned to wind. Her language was a little different from New Breast’s—she went to Central Washington University on a Native American scholarship, graduating with a master’s degree in resource management, and spoke in terms of megawatts and business plans—but her concerns were very similar. The wind farms she’d hoped to build on the reservation had to be subject to the same scrutiny as the oil wells. Were they safe? Did they infringe on sacred sites and treasured landscapes? She worried particularly about birds and told me that several of the turbines at the big Rim Rock wind farm, just off the eastern edge of the reservation, had been moved out of concern for nesting raptors. “We hold eagles to be especially sacred,” she said. Whatever the energy source, the two women agreed, the community should have to give its informed consent. “We’re not living in the 1870s anymore,” New Breast said. The Blackfeet have understood the potential of wind energy since the 1990s, when they scoped out a site at Duck Lake, north of Browning. Advocates of oil and gas like Running Crane saw no contradiction in embracing the idea, and even as he was bringing in tens of millions of dollars from new oil leases he was also working closely with Lawrence to promote wind power. Anything to generate some much-needed income. Lawrence started off modestly enough, developing plans for a 25- to 30-megawatt wind farm. (The commonly used formula—“enough to power X thousand homes”—is notoriously difficult to calculate, but such a project might serve about 10,000.) The tribal council took some persuading, but since Lawrence had her core funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, it eventually agreed to donate a site and pay for an anemometer. The average wind speed turned out to be 30 miles per hour, year-round, as good as it gets. In 2008 Lawrence began negotiations for a second project, with a company she described as “the big gorilla in the game” at the time (she declined to identify it, citing a nondisclosure agreement). This project would dwarf anything the Blackfeet had ever attempted: a wind farm producing as much as 1,000 megawatts, to be built in stages on multiple sites. If it had materialized, it might have been the biggest wind farm in the nation. “We had it all down,” Lawrence said, “the spreadsheets, the money worked out to the penny, the amount we would get.” But then the problems began, because pushing renewable energy in a place like this is easier said than done. What went wrong? Politics, for starters, said Running Crane. When the idea went before the tribal council, “it all went to hell.” As the national wind boom gathered momentum, other companies came sniffing around. Could

Montana ranks second in the nation (after Texas) in wind energy potential, and nowhere does the wind blow harder than on the Blackfeet Reservation

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one of them offer a better deal? the council asked. Maybe Lawrence should shop around. The council dithered. Time passed. The second problem was getting the energy to market. This dilemma is not unique to Montana: the places where the wind blows hardest are often far away from prospective customers. And getting from here to there, with a national power grid that might charitably be described as ramshackle and balkanized, means building new power lines, which can take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Lawrence’s big gorilla was in a position to finance such a project; the tribe’s other potential partners weren’t. Meanwhile, two things happened. One of the likeliest purchasers of wind power from Montana had been California, with its ambitious mandate to obtain one-third of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. But then, in 2011, California changed its rules, stipulating that three-quarters of this energy had to come from in-state sources. Meanwhile, Rim Rock and the nearby Glacier I and II came online, both off the rez and unencumbered by tribal politics. Together, these wind farms could generate almost 400 megawatts, more than the entire capacity of a new 214-mile-long transmission line that would carry electricity out of state. The Blackfeet wind initiative withered on the vine, and Jeri Lawrence took a new job with the tribal historic preservation office. Like the oil leases that Dan Lindseth and Harold Yeager had promoted, the Montana-Alberta Tie Line (MATL) depended on the goodwill of private landowners whose property would be affected by a power line snaking across their fields. But not all of these farmers and ranchers were thrilled at the prospect. Many resented the idea that a foreign company, the Canadian energy giant Enbridge (aided by federal stimulus dollars, just to add insult to injury), should be granted the power of eminent domain in the United States. MATL was mired for two years in legislative and courtroom battles. Local environmentalists were of two minds about power lines in Big Sky country. Some saw climate change as an existential issue; the need for renewables trumped other concerns. Others were joined on the barricades by the strangest of bedfellows. Perhaps the most determined holdout against Enbridge was Larry Salois, a Cree and a vocal supporter of wind energy, who nonetheless fought to keep the power line away from the ancient tepee rings on his property with the help of an aggressively libertarian property rights lawyer. But eventually the juice from Rim Rock and Glacier I and II began to flow. And in the most painful of ironies, most of it was destined not for arid San Diego or Phoenix. Instead it would go across the border to Alberta. And why does Alberta need all this extra energy? Largely to feed the economic monster created by the province’s tar sands boom.

“When people complain about fossil fuels, I say the solution is for all these farmers to grow wind turbines,” Gene joked. Then he paused. “But I don’t want them up and down along the Front. Out by the interstate, well, I guess I can live with that.” The story echoed things that others had said. Look at this, Dan Lindseth had appealed to me, waving a hand at the distant mountains. Do you think we want to change it? Landscape alteration, said Dusty Crary; that was the thing he feared most. In the end, what defined the essence of the Front to everyone here was what it looked like, the extraordinary beauty of the place. You can pass laws in Congress to protect roadless areas and sensitive habitat. You can use the Clean Water Act to address the contamination of water by fracking wells. But how do you protect something as intangible and subjective as beauty—even from something as desirable as a wind turbine? I’d first seen the new Glacier wind farms a couple of summers ago, and Linda was right: there was a regal beauty to all those turbines striding across the flat golden miles of wheat. I liked the idea of power lines flanking the interstate, carrying clean energy to distant cities. And the view of the Front was intact. Glacier was at least 40 miles away, and the mountains were barely visible on the horizon. But now another new wind farm, which would have some of the tallest turbines in the nation, was under construction in the bleak little town of Fairfield, which bills itself as the Malting Barley Capital of the World. This one was a bit closer, maybe 30 miles off the face of the Front. It made me wonder, how close was too close? Twenty miles? Ten? Five? And though I found no moral equivalence between a wind turbine and a fracking rig, how many oil wells would it take to wreck the view? Twenty? Fifty? A hundred? I posed these questions to everyone I met, and no one quite knew where to draw the line. On my last morning in Montana, the temperature had bottomed out at 36 below, and warmer air was moving in. A leaden snow sky was beginning to close in on the sawtooth silhouette of the Front as I struck out along a twisting dirt road into the foothills, orienting myself by the dark patches of gravel that showed through the ice. The snow began to fall, lightly at first and then in a denser curtain. It gradually erased the fence lines, then the few scattered Black Angus huddled on the farther hillsides, until all that was left was a blurred suggestion of the mountains, pale gray on white. The landscape was silent, primordial, glorious, and a little frightening. No power lines, no turbines, no oil wells, a land that Blackfeet and grizzlies had shared and seen this way for millennia, and I felt, all things considered, that because of the passion of environmentalists and the challenges of geology there was a decent chance it would stay that way. Gene Sentz and Dusty Crary would be happy; Dan Lindseth and Harold Yeager would be frustrated. If anyone had conflicted emotions, as the oil companies came and went and the wind farms kept their distance, it would probably be the Blackfeet, who would be left, as they have been for a century and half, to weigh the meaning of their mountains and berries and earth medicines against the value of a $20 bill.

You can pass laws in Congress to protect roadless areas and sensitive habitat. But how do you protect something as intangible and subjective as beauty?


n Choteau, Linda Sentz had told me a story about her

husband. “Gene was up on Ear Mountain one time, and he spent the night there,” she said. “You could look out and see all these flashing red lights from the [Glacier] wind farm. I suppose there is a certain beauty, but…” 5 0 onearth

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benign captivity In the Cincinnati Zoo, Harapan, a rare Sumatran rhino, waits to be mated with his sister.

S ex and the b y E l iz a b e t h K o l b e r t

single rhino

Survival Sometimes Calls


for Desperate Measures

o you want to take over?� Paul Reinhart


asked, holding out a pail of the sort usually used for mopping floors. Inside was a small buffet’s worth of fruits and vegetables: apple slices, papaya wedges, carrots, bananas. Each of the bananas had been carefully sliced in half but left unpeeled. I picked up one of the halves and held it out. Using his prehensile upper lip, Harapan shoveled it into his mouth. After two or three seconds, he looked up with an expression that, despite our many millions of years of evolutionary separation, clearly communicated to me a desire for

Photographs by Tom Uhlman

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more. This time I chose a whole carrot, which he polished off the way a human adolescent might dispatch a pretzel stick. Harapan, a Sumatran rhinoceros that lives at the Cincinnati Zoo, is 6 years old and not quite fully grown. He’s about eight feet long, with ruddy skin and a coat of coarse, reddish fur. Over the summer he’d put on about 100 pounds, and at the time of my visit, in the fall, he weighed seven-eighths of a ton. After going through the entire contents of the pail, he was evidently still hungry. Reinhart, the zoo’s head rhino keeper, cut open a box of ficus that had been specially flown in from San Diego and held out a branch the size of a small bush. Harapan grabbed it with his lip and chomped away noisily. Harapan’s name means “hope” in Indonesian; depending on how you look at things, this is either entirely apposite or painfully ironic. Harapan was living at the Los Angeles Zoo until this past July, when the decision was made to send him to Cincinnati to be with North America’s only other Sumatran rhino, a 9-year-old named Suci. Suci is female, so the “hope” is that when Harapan reaches sexual maturity, something that should happen in the next few months, the pair will produce a calf. The painful part is that Suci is Harapan’s sister. The decision to try to breed Harapan and Suci is a sign of just how desperate the situation of Sumatran rhinos has become. Last spring, wildlife experts met in Singapore for what was starkly titled the Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit. At the summit, it was announced that the number of Sumatran rhinos in the wild had dropped to a perilously low level: only about 100 animals remain. At least that many specialists had traveled to Singapore for the meeting, so most likely there were more people discussing how to save Sumatran rhinos the doctor is in than there were rhinos left to save. Terri Roth checks her data before Meanwhile, what’s true of the Sumatran rhino is, performing an to one degree or another, true of all rhino species. ultrasound on The Javan rhino, which once ranged across most 9-year-old Suci.

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of Southeast Asia, is even rarer than the Sumatran, with probably fewer than 50 individuals left, all in a single Javanese reserve. The Indian rhino, the largest of the five living rhino species, which appears to be wearing a wrinkled coat, as in one of Kipling’s “Just So” stories, is down to about 3,000 individuals. A century ago in Africa, the population of black rhinos approached a million; it has since been reduced to around 5,000 animals. (Two years ago, the Western black rhino, a subspecies that lived in and around Cameroon, was officially declared extinct.) The white rhino, also from Africa, is the only species not currently classified as threatened. It was hunted nearly to oblivion in the nineteenth century, then made an astonishing comeback in the twentieth, owing to a combination of careful protection and breeding on game farms. Now, in the twentyfirst, the white rhino has come under renewed pressure from poachers, who can sell rhino has an horns on the black market for understated determinamore than $20,000 a pound. The horn is particularly poption. She threw herself ular these days in Southeast into the study of rhino Asia, where it is sometimes powdered and used as a party physiology, collecting “drug.” (In fact, rhino horn is blood samples, testing made of keratin, like your fingernails.) feces and urine. Following the Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit, officials from the Cincinnati and Los Angeles zoos decided that, given the alarmingly small number of animals left, producing a calf was so important it outweighed concerns about inbreeding. Harapan was coaxed into an extra-large crate and loaded by forklift onto a truck. A


police escort accompanied him to LAX, and Reinhart flew with him in a cargo plane to Cincinnati. A few weeks later, the zoo put out a press release announcing Harapan’s arrival. The news that it was going to try to mate siblings seemed to bring the crisis home in a way that the many previous efforts to publicize the rhino’s plight had failed to do. The story was picked up in headlines around the world. “You can talk till you’re blue in the face,” Terri Roth, vice president for conservation and science at the zoo, told me. “There are very few rhinos. The Sumatran rhino is highly endangered. Even when you tell people, There’s only a hundred of them. But when you tell people you have to breed a brother and a sister because that’s all that’s left, boy, does that get their attention. Then people are suddenly like, this is a problem.”

; illustration by bruce morser


s it happens, Harapan and Suci are

themselves products of an earlier last-ditch effort to save the Sumatran rhino, which was initiated in 1984. That year, a group of conservationists gathered, also in Singapore, to try to hammer out a plan to protect the species. Historically, the Sumatran rhino’s range extended all the way from the foothills of the Himalayas, in what is now Bhutan and northeastern India, down through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Malay Peninsula and throughout almost all of Sumatra and Borneo. But by the 1980s, it had been reduced to the northern tip of Borneo, some scattered reserves on Sumatra, and a few locations in Peninsular Malaysia, and it was clear that the rhino was in grave danger. Poaching and habitat loss were driving down the number of breeding adults, and those animals that remained were left in isolated forest fragments. It was decided that a captive breeding program should be started to ensure against the species’ total loss. Between 1985 and 1994, 40 animals were captured, seven of which were sent to zoos in the United States. The program got off to a rocky start. Ten rhinos were taken into custody in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the northeastern tip of Borneo. Two of them died of injuries sustained during capture. A third died of tetanus, and none produced any offspring. In Peninsular Malaysia, 11 animals were caught. In a span of less than three weeks, five of them died from an outbreak of trypanosomiasis, a parasitic disease spread by flies. In the United States, things didn’t go much better. The zoos were feeding the rhinos hay, but Sumatran rhinos, it turns out, can’t live on hay; they require fresh leaves and branches. By the time anyone figured this out, only three of the seven U.S. rhinos were still alive, each in a different city. In 1995 the Bronx and Los Angeles zoos sent their rhinos—both females—to Cincinnati, which had the only surviving male, a bull named Ipuh. It was right around this time that Roth arrived in the Queen City from Washington, D.C., where she’d been working with big cats at the National Zoo. It fell to her to try to salvage the captive breeding program. A decade into the effort, the rhino’s reproductive habits still remained mysterious. Sumatran rhinos are shy and solitary. They’re wary of other rhinos and so can’t be kept in the same enclosure. But unless the females and the male were brought together, obviously they couldn’t mate. Roth has an understated sort of determination. She threw herself into the study of rhino physiology, collecting blood samples, analyzing feces, testing urine. She became adept at performing rhino ultrasounds, an exercise that involved sticking her arm deep into the rhinos’ rectums.

from nrdc

extinction watch

sylvia fallon Director of the wildlife conservation project in NRDC’s lands and wildlife program

Climate change and habitat loss are driving many species to extinction. What are some of the other threats? Well, another crisis is the burgeoning international trade in imperiled wildlife. Whether it’s reptiles and primates for pet stores, tigers for medicine, or ivory for decoration, the wildlife trade is driving species to extinction and threatening global biodiversity. Specifically, the demand for elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn is growing at an alarming rate. Many people assume that the main demand is from China and Southeast Asia, but the United States and Europe are in fact bigger traders in wildlife—both legal and illegal. What are the consequences of losing species such as the Sumatran rhino? Scientists have only recently begun to understand the broader ecological effects associated with the loss of some of these species from their ecosystems. They have found that “apex consumers,” which include large-bodied herbivores like the rhinoceros, can have profound effects on their habitat. Their grazing of grasslands contributes to the overall diversity of the area, and by controlling vegetation as well as affecting how the ground absorbs moisture, grazing also mediates the rate and extent of wildfires. Studies have shown that fires are bigger and more extensive in areas where populations of large herbivores like rhinos have diminished. Are other apex consumers also at risk? Absolutely. Top predators have been one of the most persecuted groups of animals, because of the danger they can pose to humans and because they compete with us for food. In the United States, for example, we nearly exterminated wolves before the Endangered Species Act allowed them to recover, although they still occupy only a fraction of their historic range. For similar reasons, humans have driven other predators to the point of near-extinction, such as lions in Africa, tigers in Asia, and sharks in the oceans worldwide. Because predators occupy the top of the food chain, their loss ripples throughout the food web, causing changes all the way down to plant populations and the species they support, like insects and birds. A recent study in the journal Science concludes that top predators are critical to maintaining biodiversity and the overall functioning of ecosystems. The authors called for a global initiative to conserve the world’s remaining predators.

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vegetarian diet At four months old, Harapan would feed under the watchful eye of his mother, Emi.

The more she learned, the more the challenges seemed to multiply. “It’s a very complicated species,” she told me one afternoon in her office, which is decorated with shelves full of wooden, clay, and plush rhinos. Rapunzel, the female from the Bronx Zoo, turned out to be too old to reproduce. Emi, the female from Los Angeles, seemed to be the right age but never seemed to ovulate, a puzzle that took Roth nearly a year to solve. Finally she realized that Sumatran rhinos are what’s known as induced ovulators: they need to be in close proximity to a male a slowbefore they release to-reproduce species an egg. Roth began to arrange carefully like the Sumatran monitored “dates” rhino is down to its between Emi and Ipuh. Very soon, last 100 individuals, Emi got pregnant. there just aren’t Then she lost the pregnancy. She many options left. conceived again, and the same thing happened. This pattern kept repeating, for a total of five times. Emi got pregnant again in the spring of 2000. This time, Roth put her on liquid hormone supplements, which the rhino received in the form of progesterone-soaked slices of bread. Finally, the following year, Emi gave birth to Andalas, a male. Three years later, she gave birth to Suci, and three years after that, to Harapan. (Emi died in 2009.) Just before Andalas reached sexual maturity, he was shipped to Sumatra, to a captive breeding facility in Way Kambas National Park, which


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up to then had failed to produce any pregnancies. In 2012 Andalas fathered Emi’s grandson, a calf named Andatu. The three captive-bred rhinos born in Cincinnati and the fourth in Way Kambas clearly don’t make up for the many animals that died along the way. But they are just about the only Sumatran rhinos born anywhere over the past three decades, which is why Harapan has been brought here to mate with his sister.


ery big animals are, of course, very big for

a reason. At birth, Harapan weighed 86 pounds. Had he been born on Sumatra, he might have fallen victim to a tiger (though nowadays Sumatran tigers, too, are critically endangered). But probably he would have been protected by his mother, and adult rhinos have no natural predators. The same goes for other so-called megaherbivores; full-grown elephants and hippos are so large no animal dares attack them. Such are the advantages of being oversize—what might be called the “too big to quail” strategy—that, in evolutionary terms, it would seem to be a pretty good gambit. Indeed, until what might, geologically speaking, be thought of as recent times, the earth was full of Brobdingnagian animals. Toward the end of the last ice age, Europe had aurochs and cave bears and woolly rhinos. (DNA analysis has shown that Sumatran rhinos are the woolly rhino’s closest living relatives.) North America’s behemoths included mastodons, mammoths, and Megalonyx jeffersonii, a ground sloth that weighed nearly a ton. South America had its own gigantic sloths, as well as Toxodon, a genus of mammal with a rhinolike body and a hippo-shaped head, and glyptodonts, relatives of armadillos that in some cases grew to be as large as a Fiat 500. Australia was home to diprotodons, a group of lumbering marsupials

colloquially known as rhinoceros wombats; Thylacoleo carnifex, a tigersize carnivore referred to as a marsupial lion; and the giant short-faced kangaroo. Even smaller islands had their own large beasts. Cyprus had a dwarf elephant and a dwarf hippopotamus. Madagascar was home to three species of pygmy hippos, a family of enormous flightless birds known as elephant birds, and several species of giant lemurs. What happened to all these oversize creatures? Scientists have been debating this question for a century and a half, and they divide into two hostile camps: the climatists and the overkillers. According to the first group, the culprit was the temperature shift that occurred at the end of the last glaciation, 18,000 years ago. According to the second, it was humans who wiped out the megafauna through hunting. One of the earliest climatists was the British geologist Charles Lyell, a mentor to Charles Darwin. Lyell attributed the megafauna’s demise to “the great modification in climate” caused by the ice age. Darwin agreed with Lyell, though only reluctantly. “I cannot feel quite easy about the glacial period and the extinction of large mammals,” he wrote in a letter to Alfred Russel Wallace, another of the nineteenth century’s great naturalists. Wallace, for his part, initially favored a climatic explanation, but later changed his mind. “Looking at the whole subject again,” he observed in his last book, The World of Life, “I am convinced that…the rapidity of the extinction of so many large Mammalia is actually due to man’s agency.” The whole thing, he said, was really “very obvious.” The debate drags on, but the most recent research has come down decidedly on the side of overkill. A study of Australian megafauna published in 2012, for instance, found that the continent’s giant herbivores died out before any significant climate change had occurred (but, importantly, after humans arrived). The megafauna extinction in Australia “couldn’t have been driven by climate,” Chris Johnson, an ecologist at the University of Tasmania and one of the lead authors of the study, told me on the phone from his office in Hobart. “I think we can say that categorically.” The plight of the Sumatran rhino also supports the case for overkill, if only indirectly. As a general rule, the trade-off for being large enough to avoid predation is a low birth rate: megaherbivores take a mega-long time to give rise to a new generation. Rhinos require six or seven years to reach sexual maturity. Gestation then takes about 16 months. For elephants, the process is even more drawn out; they don’t start reproducing until their teens, and their gestation period is nearly two years. The problem with people (as far as elephants and rhinos are concerned) is that they don’t obey the usual rules of predator-prey relations. Humans can—and routinely do—kill animals that are much larger and stronger than themselves. This alters the terms of the trade-off and turns what was a highly successful survival strategy into a loser’s game. People don’t have to wantonly slaughter rhinos, just as they didn’t have to wantonly slaughter mammoths or diprotodons, to drive them to extinction. All they have to do is depress the already low reproductive rate, and the population will decline. If the pressure is sustained, ultimately it will drop all the way to zero. In the case of the Sumatran rhino, the population has fallen to the point that there are those who argue that all the animals left in the rainforest ought to be pulled out of it. “In my strong opinion, the only way to save this species is to bring them into captivity and make them breed,” John Payne, executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance and one of the organizers of the Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit, told me by phone from the city of

Kota Kinabalu. “This is the heart of the matter. That’s controversial. There’s people saying that’s not the way to do it.” In fact, the Malaysian government has resolved to bring all of the rhinos left on Borneo into captivity, but at this point there are probably fewer than 10 rhinos remaining there. Sumatra, where the rest of the animals live, is part of Indonesia, and the Indonesian government, by contrast, has endorsed a plan to try to preserve its rhinos in parks. The fact that the rhino’s small population is divided between two antagonistic countries may be another reason to fear for its survival, as the two nations often seem to be working at cross-purposes.


ne day in Cincinnati, I arrived at what is

called the rhino’s barn—really a one-story building made of cinder blocks—in time to watch Harapan’s sister, Suci, get breakfast. On an average day, Paul Reinhart told me, Suci goes through about 100 pounds of ficus. (Providing her and Harapan with browse costs the zoo about $200,000 a year.) Once the ficus leaves were gone, Suci started in on the branches. These were an inch or two thick, but she crunched through them easily, and continued on until only a few stray twigs remained. Reinhart described Suci to me as a “good mix” of her mother, Emi, and her father, Ipuh, who died just a few months before Harapan returned. (E. O. Wilson, who once spent an evening with Emi at the zoo, described the encounter as “one of the most memorable events” of his life.) “Emi, if there was trouble to get into, she’d get into it,” Reinhart recalled. “Suci, she’s very playful. But she’s also more hardheaded, like her dad.” Suci is so used to being around people that Reinhart let me hang out with her while he went off to do other chores. I stroked her hairy flanks. Sumatran rhinos have pebbled skin that makes petting them feel a bit like rubbing a tree trunk. Though I can’t say I sensed much playfulness, Suci did seem to me to be affectionate, a little like an overgrown dog. (In fact, rhinos are most closely related to horses.) At the same time, I recalled the warning of one zoo official, who had told me that if Suci suddenly decided to jerk her enormous head, she could easily break my arm. After a while, it was time for the rhino to go get weighed. Some pieces of banana were laid out in front of a pallet scale built into the floor of the next stall over. When Suci trudged over to eat the bananas, the readout from the scale was 1,507 pounds. The Cincinnati breeding program demonstrates how seriously humans take extinction. Such is the pain caused by the loss of a single species that people are willing to perform ultrasounds with their arms deep in a rhino’s rectum, if there’s even a chance that this will help. Time and again, people have shown that they care about what Rachel Carson called the “problem of sharing our earth with other creatures,” and that they’re willing to make sacrifices on those creatures’ behalf. But just as clearly, the breeding program shows the limits of such desperate efforts. Once a slow-to-reproduce species like the Sumatran rhino is down to its last 100 individuals, there just aren’t many options left. Terri Roth told me that she was already starting to look for a new project to turn her attention to, because “if there are no other long-term solutions, I don’t want to continue to inbreed.” It is painful to imagine a world in which the Sumatran rhino has no place. But it’s getting increasingly difficult to see what that place is. spring 2014

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WINDFALL The Booming Business of Global Warming by McKenzie Funk Penguin Press, 320 pp., $27.95

the profits of doom

E patrick j. endres/alaskaphotographics/corbis

Who has made peace with climate change? The people who stand to make their fortunes from it. by george black

very cloud has a silver lining. And

every hurricane, every melting glacier, every millimeter of sea-level rise. That’s the uncomfortable message delivered by McKenzie Funk’s Windfall: while global warming may bring catastrophe to billions, it will also make some people very rich. Banks, hedge funds, and smart investors had this epiphany, Funk says, around 2007, after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that 11 of the previous 12 years had been the warmest in human history. In the words of a Deutsche Bank press release at that time, “The debate around climate change is shifting away from cost and risk toward the question of how to capitalize on exciting opportunities.” This, of course, was precisely when others were having their own epiphany after watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The difference is in how these two epiphanies played out. For most people,

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says Elke Weber of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, it’s difficult to achieve a sense of urgency because the “time-delayed, abstract, and often statistical nature of the risks of global warming does not evoke strong visceral reactions.” The pursuit of profit works in the opposite way; the viscera and the frontal lobe of the brain operate in tandem. Strike now, before the other guy does; place your bets decisively on disaster. So where exactly should you invest? John Deere would be one good bet. If drought destroys wheat farming in Australia, American farmers will need more tractors. The Schroder Global Climate Change Fund favors big supermarket chains: “If climate change will be a negative for crop yields, then people will just have to spend more on food. Retailers are a clear beneficiary.” Water may be the biggest profit center of all. With “hydrocommerce” already a $400 billion-a-year industry, the chief economist of Citigroup predicts that water will “become eventually the single most important physical commodity-based asset class, dwarfing

oil, copper, agricultural commodities, and precious metals.” Funk divides his tour of these new profit centers into three segments: The Melt, The Drought, and The Deluge. But a single theme runs through all three: there will be winners and losers, and how the competition shakes out will be determined by money and power. Not surprisingly, perhaps, those who will make the greatest profits from climate change, and have the best chance of resisting its impact, live in countries that are principally responsible for causing it in the first place. As this implies, some of the shakeout will occur at the political level—within, between, and among nation states. Funk devotes a chapter to the aspirations of Greenland, which he thinks may become “the first country in the world created by global warming.” In this Danish possession (which is 50 times larger than the mother country), massive deposits of minerals will appear miraculously from beneath melting glaciers. Valuable fish stocks are migrating into Greenland’s coastal waters as ocean temperatures climb. Disaster tourists are flocking to watch icebergs calve and collapse. The independence movement is salivating. Climate change also destabilizes societies; it is what national security types call a “threat multiplier.” If you’re a Bangladeshi driven from your home by rising seas, you may try to flee to India, but you’ll soon find the longest fence in the world in the way— 2,100 miles, floodlit, electrified. If you’re a Senegalese, you may pay a smuggler hundreds of dollars to take you to southern Europe in a flimsy boat. And if you arrive alive (which many don’t), you’ll have to contend with “Fortress Europe,” whose borders will be guarded in the future by a surveillance network of radar, sensors, infrared cameras, and drones—the kind of

defenses only rich countries can afford. (In case you’re looking for more investment opportunities, don’t forget all those privately owned detention centers for illegal migrants.) Funk hits his richest vein in the world of business. It’s a world ruled by men: there’s nary a woman among all his bankers, hedge fund managers, generals, desalinators, warlords, scenario planners, fire chiefs, genetic engineers, inventors of inflatable smokestacks that will climb 15 miles into the sky to pump emissions from power plants into the stratosphere. In Funk’s Mad Max world of climate change, women have only walk-on parts. There are three protesters against oil drilling in Alaska, one dressed in a polar bear costume. A member of a Japanese cult helps to build a wall of trees across the Sahel by beaming invisible light energy at a row of seedlings. Oh, and there’s Ayn Rand—but we’ll get to her in a moment. “We are always wowed by the smartest guys in the room… when we are in the room,” Funk writes. But to his enormous credit, he does not stay in the room. He plunges into the real world to show how the smartest guys’ ideas play out in practice. Flying around South Sudan in an ancient DC-9, braving overcrowded river ferries in Bangladesh, he lets his reporting speak for itself, without the need for a John Williams sound track to tell us how we’re supposed to feel. Yet at the same time he has a finely tuned sense of irony. He notices, for example, that Shell’s main Arctic oil-drilling ship bears the word Majuro on its hull. Majuro is the capital of the Marshall Islands, which is likely to be one of the first small island states to go underwater. While the country waits to drown, it makes money selling flags of convenience to foreign-owned ships. Funk’s greatest strength is his

ability to situate a vivid local narrative in its larger political and economic context. Take the giant insurance company AIG, which features large in his account of zooming around the tonier zip codes of Los Angeles with a team of private firefighters from a company called Firebreak Spray Systems. This Oregon-based outfit is contracted to protect homes that are insured by AIG’s Private Client Group (only residences valued at more than $1 million qualify). As fire rages in the foothills of the Sierras, Firebreak’s chief Sam DiGiovanna scans the addresses and demands of his crew: “Is that one ours? Let’s find ours and spray it”—with a chemical fire retardant developed by Monsanto. The reader is left with the queasy feeling that houses that are not “ours” can be left to burn. The argument for privatizing firefighting—advanced by the likes of the Koch brothers–


lords like General Paulino Matip, whom Funk calls “the most feared man in South Sudan.” Heilberg recently leased a million acres of farmland in this newly independent country, where he dreams of transforming a world of cowherders and tiny plots of corn and sorghum into a hive of American-style agribusiness. Ayn Rand is his favorite author, he tells Funk: the pursuit of profit is a moral act, “a kind of enlightened selfishness. Place yourself above all else.” Yet Funk is not interested only in this cartoonish worship of greed. His most subtle and illuminating chapter looks at Shell’s huge bet on the Arctic petroleum rush—the quest for 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that “has men running around like Elizabethan invaders, claiming virgin territory.” Until a few years ago, Shell was


The Melt, the Drought, the Deluge. A single theme runs through all three: how the competition shakes out will be determined by money and power.

funded Reason Foundation—runs like this: California is a high-tax state; as wildfires increase, so will the demand for firefighting; public fire brigades mean higher taxes; ergo, turn things over to the private sector. This libertarian philosophy is even more flagrant in the case of Phil Heilberg, a former AIG trader turned land-grabber who puts one in mind of a speculator in chemotherapy futures gleeful over news of higher cancer rates. His special interest is the violent breakup of small, impoverished states. “I want a country that’s weaker,” he says. “There’s a cost to dealing with strong countries: resource nationalism.” In Africa, he strikes deals with local war-

hailed as the paradigm of an enlightened oil company, warning of the dangers of climate change and pushing cap-and-trade legislation in Washington. “People always think…the market will solve all of it,” said Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer in 2008. “That of course is nonsense.” But when climate legislation foundered and U.N. conferences failed to secure significant global agreements on carbon emissions, Shell’s philosophy pivoted. Its focus was no longer on how oil and gas production would worsen global warming but on how global warming would open up opportunities for oil and gas production. Shell dropped all new funding for wind and solar energy; instead, it

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reviews began sinking billions into Arctic oil and Canadian tar sands. There is a dark, perverse logic here: the less governments do to control carbon emissions, the greater the market incentive to increase them. Markets are not immoral but amoral. If governments create the right framework, private capital can achieve enlightened results. If they don’t, well, just get out there, grab your windfall, and damn the social consequences. As Bangladesh’s leading environmentalist, Atiq Rahman, remarks to Funk as he considers the lack of international investment in his country’s mortal struggle with climate change, “Money doesn’t get to the poor. That is the nature of money.”

in bad. And our meatpackers are caught in a vise between the whims of large, powerful buyers like Walmart and McDonald’s and the fickle (and lately, historically high) price of feed. Given these obstacles, the fact that McDonald’s can consistently sell a Bacon McDouble burger for a dollar seems preposterous; it’s a wonder we have a large-scale meat industry at all, much less a highly profitable one. In The Meat Racket, the veteran agriculture journalist Christopher Leonard delivers a blunt-force answer to that riddle: the large meatpackers— as exemplified by Tyson Foods, his main focus—thrive by relentlessly driving down costs. They hog

billions of dollars in annual profits by forcing much of the risk and need for capital expenditures onto their suppliers. Tyson is today the world’s largest meat company. It slaughters and packs about a quarter of the beef consumed in the United States, a fifth of the pork, and a fifth of the chicken, and it is now eagerly exporting its business model to Brazil and China. The company got its star t in the early 1930s, Leonard tells us, when an enterprising young man named John Tyson, having been knocked off the family farm by the Depression, launched an enterprise that delivered fruit grown in Arkansas to urban

markets. He also sold a few chickens on the side. By connecting farms to markets, Tyson sought shelter from the risks of farming, acting as a middleman. As chicken became central to his business, he learned that even the middleman’s role carried too much risk. Because of price fluctuations, “Sometimes the profit on a load of chickens was wiped out in the time it took to deliver them.” He realized that selling farmers the feed they needed to grow their birds would act as a hedge against price drops. Not only was this an especially profitable part of the supply chain; it was the only part that remained profitable when prices slumped.

the meat racket The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business by christopher leonard Simon & Schuster 384 pp., $28


New York Arbor By Mitch Epstein, Steidl, $68 If the meat industry’s

slaughter practices seem brutal to you, check out the economics. Capital requirements are daunting: the industry needs vast, wellvented feeding barns, high-tech slaughter facilities, fleets of trucks equipped with energy-sucking coolers. Demand fluctuates, ramping up production in good times and leaving producers holding unwanted livestock (or meat) 5 8 onearth

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In his remarkable 40-year career, Mitch Epstein has shown as much range and versatility as any living photographer. His early books explored everyday life in India and Vietnam in intimate human detail. Later works celebrated the endlessly varied people and streetscapes of New York City and Berlin. In recent years Epstein has enlarged on his lifelong interest in environmental themes. His 2009 book, American Power, showed us where our energy came from, with monumental images of belching smokestacks, oil refineries draped in American flags, cooling towers looming over small-town backyards. His latest work, New York Arbor, is a collection of subdued, exquisitely composed black-and-white photographs of trees, like these American elms in Central Park, that encourage us to meditate on the resilience (and necessity) of nature in the urban landscape.

From that insight, Tyson developed the highly lucrative model that would come to dominate U.S. meat production: grab hold of the profitable bits of the supply chain and foist the rest onto others. Here’s how it worked: Tyson supplied the chicks and the feed to farmers, who grew them out under a contract to sell them back to Tyson in a murky “tournament” system that rewarded the most efficient farmers and punished the laggards. Tyson then slaughtered the birds and brought them to market. The key is that Tyson has almost nothing to do with the actual farming. The company dabbled in the 1960s with growing its own birds but quickly dropped the idea. One reason, Leonard says, was that it was easier to motivate a debt-focused farmer than a salaried employee to do the dirty work, “which involved hauling loads of dead chickens out of a barn where the ammonia fumes were so strong they burned the eyes.” More important, chicken houses proved to be a terrible investment because they “served only one purpose, and they lost their value quickly as they wore out.” By promising them a steady income and help with governmentbacked loans, Tyson enticed farmers in rural areas of the Deep South to shoulder the risk. As Leonard demonstrates, the system routinely bankrupted farmers, but Tyson could always find new ones to buy their facilities at fire-sale prices. Eventually, the company would barrel into the pork and beef markets, transforming them along similar lines, in a process Leonard dubs “chickenization.” For all the dirt Leonard digs up here, he doesn’t fully cover the multitude of sins of the meatproduction system that Tyson pioneered. Readers hoping to learn about the rise of antibioticresistant pathogens it helped engender, for example, will have to look elsewhere. And I would have

liked to read more about the cozy relationship between Tyson and Arkansas’s most famous political family, the Clintons. (I had to go to Google to find that it was the ruthless Tyson lawyer James Blair who facilitated Hillary Clinton’s famously successful cattlefutures deal in the late 1970s.) And while Leonard writes with the energy of a vintage muckraker, he at times loses narrative steam, bogged down in details. Yet in writing the definitive account of the rise and reign of Tyson Foods he has made a crucial contribution to our understanding of the modern meat racket—and of its ruinous effect on the rural economies it touches. —TOM PHILPOTT

a feathered river across the sky The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction BY joel greenberg Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $26

They were so abundant

the trees would crack and fall over with the weight of them; they would surge down valleys like torrential cataracts. To lure passing flocks into their nets, people would blind a bird in one eye with turpentine to make it flutter in circles, or affix a “Judas bird” to a stool and move it up and down. Sometimes they just set the trees on fire and harvested heaps of burnt birds. They transported them alive to New York and shot them for fun. One morn-

ing in 1878, a Michigan shore was strewn with passenger pigeon bodies and some locals wondered if they had committed suicide, for “their persecution was more than any living thing could endure.” Some of the last survivors turned into literal passengers, riding a train with a scientist from Chicago


only sources, they can’t be dismissed like little children. Greenberg describes a few “oddballs” who didn’t want to destroy every pigeon they saw: Junius Booth, who grievingly buried a coffin full of dead pigeons; Etta Wilson, an ornithologist who as a little girl couldn’t bring her-

Pigeons did adapt—they learned, when the guns started going off, to fly away, even if that meant leaving their nestlings behind

to Massachusetts and back. These and other images make A Feathered River Across the Sky, Joel Greenberg’s account of the flourishing and extinction of the passenger pigeon, unforgettable. Here are the material details of the extermination: how nets were dyed and how traps were sprung; how dishes such as ballotines de pigeons Lucullus were prepared; how people pinched and crunched and bit their heads; how they dispatched them with sticks and stones, potatoes and pitchforks; how the birds got turned into pillows, soap, shortening, cutlets, pies, toys, trash, and finally history. In places Greenberg corrects the record, as when he contends that rural people were no less rapacious than urban pigeon dealers, and when he maintains that pigeon populations suffered not because they could not adapt to their new neighbors but because they did adapt—they learned, when the guns started going off, to fly away, even if that meant leaving their nestlings behind. In other places he adds to the record, as when he gives new evidence regarding the last birds killed. But much of the record will always be speculative, and this book gives necessary and welcome credence to “quaint” witnesses. When old sources are the


self to snap the heads of wounded birds; and “single-hearted” Henry Bergh, who founded the ASPCA and tried to shut down pigeonshooting matches. But it seems that most individuals—enough, anyway—stayed diligently on task, not even observing the modest limits some Native Americans had imposed upon themselves, such as “the prohibition against taking adult birds at nestings.” Greenberg details the crucial role of trains and telegraphs in enabling people to follow and ransack the wandering congregations of birds: “Remoteville, a hamlet tucked into the Missouri Ozarks, could quickly share news with the world.” The chapters about pigeonshooting contests and the pigeon market are very numbery— 600 dozen pigeons going for $600, 7.2 million birds shipped in 40 days, Captain A. H. Bogardus trying to shoot 500 pigeons in 645 minutes for a $1,000 prize. But this is probably fitting, since the people doing the shooting, bagging, and buying were very number-minded. The market and sports were all about numbers, and pigeons were measured in pennies and points. And so it is terribly tempting, once you finish the book and Martha, the last one, is dead, to turn back to the early chapters, when the passenger pigeons were numberless and measureless. —Amy Leach

spring 2014

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Dispatches news and views from the natural resources defense council

brilliant ideas

Improved energy efficiency can really light up your town.

a smarter skyline, illuminated A 10-city initiative will help building owners conserve energy, save lots of money, and help fix climate change


ometime in the not-too-distant

future, today’s twentysomethings will gather their grandchildren around the geothermal heating vent to describe how, when they were kids, people drove around in Hummers that got only nine miles to the gallon and lived and worked in buildings—get this— that did not have efficiency ratings. That is the future envisioned by leaders of the 10 U.S. cities participating in the City Energy Project, an initiative by NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation designed to increase energy efficiency in buildings in these metropolises. Nationally, buildings account for a whopping 40 percent of total energy consumption. In cities, where buildings dominate the landscape, that figure can be as high as 75 percent. The City Energy Project is working to change that by making buildings more efficient;

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it could lower energy bills by nearly $1 billion annually and reduce carbon emissions by up to seven million tons—roughly the equivalent of taking three or four typical power plants offline or of taking a million or more passenger vehicles off the road. For many of the participating cities, the first step will involve asking private building owners to benchmark the energy performance of their buildings against similar properties. “There is an EPA-recognized rating on your refrigerator and a miles-per-gallon rating for your automobile,” says Melissa Wright, deputy director of the project. “But for a building, that type of information is usually not available.” The rating will be done with a free online tool called Portfolio Manager, which takes a year’s worth of utility data and other information, such as operating hours and occupancy, and arrives at an overall score from 1 to 100. The project also seeks to raise awareness of the impact of

opposite: KEVIN DICKERT/ GETTY IMAGES ; right: STEVE HORRELL/Science Photo Library/Corbis

building efficiency—“We want it to become front of mind,” Wright says—and thereby encourage building owners to voluntarily make modifications that will not only reduce their energy costs but drum up local business for electricians, architects, engineers, and software providers, to cite a few examples. Efficiency doesn’t need to be expensive, Wright points out. “There are lots of strategies for managing energy use that are not capital-intensive. You don’t have to put a wind turbine on your roof to make a difference. You can make a difference by turning off your lights at night.” The City Energy Project will work with local governments to design energy-saving plans to raise efficiency where it is needed most. Each city will have its own customized plan. While some improvements, such as phasing out inefficient lighting, could be applied universally, others will be specific to a city’s workforce or real estate community: Chicago might want to focus on training its building operators, for example, whereas Los Angeles might see the need for better financing programs to help owners retrofit their properties. Because the participating cities are geographically and politically diverse—Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Orlando, Salt Lake City, and Philadelphia—they offer models that are applicable around the country. The long-term goal is to improve the efficiency of buildings not only in these cities but in the entire nation. “We’re hoping to create a domino effect,” says Jessica Lawrence, the director of city operations at the Institute for Market Transformation, a partner organization on the project. “We really hope other cities see that the program is viable—and replicate it.”

—Mary X. Dennis

cleaner soap You’ve known this since pre-K:

washing your hands helps keep you healthy. Unless you’re doing it with antibacterial soap. Triclosan, the active ingredient in most liquid antibacterial soaps, is a suspected endocrine disruptor that may contribute to infertility and early-onset puberty. The Food and Drug Administration never actually okayed triclosan for use in antibacterial soaps, although it is approved for use in thousands of other products. For any drug to be FDA-approved for over-thecounter use, its safety and

efficacy must be established. Scientific studies, however, have shown that soap with triclosan is no more effective than regular soap. Still, the FDA never banned triclosan from these soaps, creating a loophole that allowed it to be added to them. That was back in 1978. “NRDC filed a lawsuit in 2010 to compel the FDA to finalize its official list of approved ingredients—because it’s a little ridiculous already,” says Mae Wu, an attorney in NRDC’s health and environment program. The pressure seems to have paid off: these soaps will likely be off the market by 2016. But many products, from children’s toys to kitchen knives, still contain triclosan. So it’s best to stay away from anything advertised as antibacterial or anti—M.X.D. microbial.

Get the mold out

A legal victory will help prevent asthma attacks.

how to breathe easier


HOUSANDS OF PEOPLE IN NEW YORK CITY’S HOUSING projects contend with indoor mold that can transform a home into a health hazard, causing asmtha attacks, trips to the hospital, and missed days at school or work. Most of the city’s housing projects, home to more than 450,000 people, are badly in need of repairs. It could take more than six months for the New York City Housing Authority to respond to a mold complaint, and “when they finally showed up, they often just cleaned off the mold and repainted,” says Al Huang, a senior attorney at NRDC who focuses on urban environmental justice. “They never addressed the underlying problem”—the broken pipes, leaky roof, or condensation around sweating pipes with no insulation. The community group Manhattan Together, part of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, had been battling NYCHA in state courts over indoor mold and moisture issues for more than 30 years, without much result. In 2011 the group approached NRDC for help, and Huang and his team began looking for a way to bring a case to federal court. Failure to comply with a federal court order, Huang notes, can result in court sanction and withholding of federal funding—and the housing authority receives hundreds of millions of federal dollars each year. In a stroke of inspiration, the team decided to focus on the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2006 the ADA expanded the definition of a disability to include impairment of any basic life function—and that included breathing. This meant the act now protected people disabled by asthma from housing discrimination. NRDC’s health and environment program provided peer-reviewed studies showing that not only mold but also the moisture that fosters it can exacerbate asthma in an indoor environment. The studies also expressed concern that the effects of climate change—such as increased storms and flooding—would only worsen these health threats. In December, NRDC reached a settlement requiring the housing authority to write a new policy for mold and moisture that “applies to everybody, regardless of whether you have asthma,” Huang says. NYCHA must also respond to a complaint of mold or moisture within one week and fix the root problem. Moreover, the agency now recognizes that asthma is a disability, setting a precedent for indoor mold battles in other cities. For residents of public housing —M.X.D. struggling with mold, breathing just got a little easier.

spring 2014

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Time to Teach the Coal Industry Math


he American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity wants to ensure that

coal-fired power plants are allowed to continue emitting unlimited carbon pollution into the air, and it produced a report that argues its case. ACCCE sent a letter to Ed Whitfield, chairman of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee, summarizing the report, which criticizes a proposal by NRDC outlining cost-effective ways to reduce carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. Dan Lashof, the director of NRDC’s climate and clean air program, takes issue with the coalition’s claims.

Their True Nature Linda Erlandson Frost has

O xy m or on

The American Coalition for Cle an Coal Electricity (ACCCE) opposes the regulatio n of CO2 and other greenhouse gases under the Cle an Air Act because the Act is not designed to regulate greenhouse gases and any eff ort by EPA to do [sic] will cause unnecessary economic harm. Hey, do the numbers! Our conclusion is that the NRD C proposal would cause substantial economic har m and any such harm is impossible to justif y, especially considering the fact that the global climate effects resulting from the NRD C proposal would be virtually meaningle ss. N ot tr u e. For example, according to the analysis conducted by NERA, the CO2 reductions that would result from the NRDC proposal repres ent, at most, 1 percent of global anthropog enic greenhouse gas emissions.

* The Supreme Court disagrees. In 2007 it ruled that greenhouse gases meet the definition of an air pollutant in the Clean Air Act, and in 2011 it ruled that the EPA has the authority to set standards for carbon pollution from power plants.

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* ACCCE looks at * ACCCE uses an

spring 2014

inflated estimate of energy-efficiency costs, which makes the overall costs of reducing emissions seem higher. It also uses a shoddy apples-and-oranges comparison in weighing the costs and benefits of carbon emission reductions.

only one side of the ledger, ignoring the economic benefits of limiting pollution in terms of improving human and environmental health and reducing climate change. If you factor in these savings, ACCCE’s own numbers show that the cumulative benefits would exceed costs by more than two to one.

*Power plants are

the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, and no other single policy would reduce emissions more effectively than setting limits on these emissions.

always found her greatest joy in nature. She grew up in rural Minnesota, climbing trees and turning over rocks looking for frogs and other critters. She experienced this same joy during her days in the “back-to-the-land” movement in the early 1970s, and it sustains her today as she and her husband, Ed, endeavor to “live lightly.” They don’t own a car and they grow much of their own food from the garden that used to be their front lawn. It’s important to the Frosts to practice what they preach in the here and now, while also looking toward the future. “We want to consider our legacy,” Linda says. “And the best thing we can do for our children and grandchildren is to protect the environment.” To put those words into action, the Frosts have established a bequest in their will for NRDC. “Humans have been so successful that we have driven much of the planet’s biodiversity to the brink of extinction,” Linda explains. “Ed and I want to use our resources to help all creatures survive. In the final analysis, we’re all interdependent, so what we leave to benefit other species will help humans as well. We chose NRDC because we know that our gift will have a lasting impact.” For information on how

to leave your own lasting legacy, contact Michelle Mulia-Howell, director of gift planning, at or 212-727-4421.


the messenger

Lisa Benenson believes issues must be transformed into narratives.

true stories A seasoned journalist turned advocate emphasizes the need for crafting a clear, resonant message



by emily cousins

isa benenson, chief Communications

officer of NRDC, has lived and worked in the New York area for two decades, but she still names as home the rugged mountains of the West. Benenson grew up outside Denver, where her father worked for the U.S. Geological Survey; every summer he brought his wife and four children out into the field with him. That meant summers in a ramshackle rancher’s cabin in Idaho or on a deserted dude ranch in Montana’s Gallatin Valley. The latter had no running water but plenty of rocky ridges to explore. (It also had bears, and Lisa and her siblings were required to wear clanking cowbells when they played outside in an attempt to keep the animals away.) “Maybe it’s being a geologist’s daughter, but I believe places tell

who we are

what we do

stories,” Benenson says. “No matter where we’re from, there are markers in the landscape that let us know we are home.” In her role as NRDC’s communications chief, which she assumed in October 2013, she is learning just how important these stories—so deeply rooted in our individual senses of “home”—are to the broader mission of environmental advocacy. “With this job I feel like I’m coming full circle,” she adds. “To protect the places I have held dear in my life, and to better understand the role NRDC has played in keeping those places safe for my children, and their children—that means so much to me.” Benenson brings to her new job an expertise as deep as it is varied. Right out of college, she became a reporter at the Denver Post because she admired the way journalism could prompt people to take action. Later, after being offered a job at Newsday, she moved east, where she met her husband, Joel Benenson. After giving birth to a daughter and a son, she worked as an editor at Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, and Working Woman magazines. In 2006 she orchestrated the launch of Hallmark’s first magazine, ushering it close to the one-million-reader mark within the publication’s first year. Benenson was working for Newsweek and the Daily Beast in 2011 when the U.S. Fund for UNICEF asked her to run its marketing and communications division. She welcomed the chance to work for a nonprofit devoted to children’s survival and seized the opportunity to apply valuable lessons she had learned as a journalist. “The only way to make complex issues matter to people is by telling stories,” she says. “Not just

with words or pictures, but with an alchemy of the two. That’s what you have to do as an editor. And that’s what you have to do in an advocacy organization too.” Benenson believes NRDC can tell powerful stories that connect environmental issues to people’s everyday lives. By way of example, she cites her neighbors in tiny Twin Bridges, Montana, where she and her family have a home. They care about climate change every bit as much as her neighbors in New York do— albeit for different reasons. The best way to engage her Twin Bridges friends on the issue, she says, is to talk about what climate change means for Montana: its water, wildlife, and energy costs. The adage “all politics is local” has long served to remind elected officials that they cannot afford to ignore the bread-and-butter concerns of their constituents. Environmental groups would do well, Benenson suggests, to find a new and more “localized” language for framing global issues like climate change, so that these issues feel more urgent to individuals within their own communities. “NRDC has done amazing work,” Benenson says. “We know how to persuade juries, and inform members of Congress, and move businesses. The final frontier is engaging the broader population.” NRDC, she says, is now poised to mobilize a standing army of advocates by making sure they understand that the fight for a safe and healthy planet isn’t someone else’s story. It’s their story too. “The environmental movement has long benefited from the intensive activity of an impassioned few,” she adds. But to take us to the next level, “we need a passionate many.”

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open space the great green desert Although our entire history in that place depended on farming within you will know what I mean. The land contains you, and the climate’s limits, my father, like his neighbors, had grasped on to you can’t really differentiate between what it is and who new technology allowing him to irrigate out of the vast but virtually you are. Yet you can leave, because your family will always non-renewable Ogallala Aquifer. I did the math and figured out that in be there, keeping you one with the land. You don’t realize less than a century, if our family continued pumping nearly 200 million they are performing this service or that you need them to. gallons every growing season, the water under our land would be gone. I may have gotten over the cowboy, but I hadn’t forgotten the desI left Kansas when I was 18, headed for excitement, I suppose. But ert’s wild beauty or Kansas when it the most exciting thing I did in San Franwas still wild enough for me to imagcisco was to leave it 12 years later for the ine Indians chasing buffalo across the Mojave Desert, to live alone in a remote prairies. Aridity had given the grass mountain cabin surrounded by more that stretched beyond our farmhouse than a million acres of wilderness. As this transfixing blue-green cast that for thrills, nothing beat taking icy dunks had perfectly complemented our pale on hot afternoons in a big windmill-fed blue, overarching skies. And although tank where a rancher stored water I didn’t have to live in the desert to for his cattle. Although I didn’t realize know this in my bones, I now knew it this at the time, I fell into that waterin my head: water is precious. worshipping, desert-loving groove beMy father wanted to train me as his cause I’d been born in it. successor—a great honor in a place My family’s western Kansas farm where ideas about men’s and women’s may not have been as dry as the work had always been rigid. But if my Mojave, but the 1820 Stephen H. Long land ethic were a line in the dirt like expedition across the High Plains the ones my toddler son loved to draw dubbed the region the Great Desert with a stick, it would be exactly perfor good reason. Were it not for the wapendicular to the one representing my ter our windmills pumped, we couldn’t father’s: make all the money you can, have survived there. And to make a no matter how much native grass you living, my father had to practice “the plow or how much poison you spray or science of farming where rainfall is dehow much water you pump. ficient.” The historian Walter Prescott Though it saddened my father when Webb should have added the words Until I grew up, I didn’t even I told him I wanted to go back to school, art and obsession to his definition of dryknow we’d had a drought during my he forked over quite a few irrigation land farming. My father nurtured the 1950s childhood that rivaled the dollars to help. And though it saddened moisture in his wheat fields so deftly me that he was farming unsustainably, and assiduously that, until I grew up, I Dust Bowl of the 1930s I thought I could accept his aid and didn’t even know we’d had a drought leave once again without a backward glance, still confident that, because during my 1950s childhood that rivaled the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. After jumping into 60-degree water on 100-degree days, the most thrill- our land would always be there, I would always be me. A little more than a decade later, my father died, leaving me part-owner ing thing I did in the Mojave was marry this charming cowboy with a drinking problem. I thought I could reform him. When it proved I couldn’t of what he’d considered a lucrative paradise and what I considered a and I became pregnant, I left him for the safety of home. Suddenly, in- travesty against the land’s natural gifts and character. Who was I now? If you were raised on a farm, then you probably know this too: the stead of floating on the crystalline waters of that stock-water storage tank, I found myself standing waist-deep in my father’s tailwater pit, a bull- chickens always do come home to roost. dozed hole in the ground where he caught runoff from his flood-irrigated fields. I did that only once. The tepid water was ecru, the color of dirt, Julene Bair is the author of The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckand, as I would soon learn, saturated with farm chemicals. oning, due out in March from Viking/Penguin. f, like me, you grew up on family land, then

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illustration by michael glenwood


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Take the NRDC Legacy Challenge Let us know you’re including NRDC in your estate plans and a member of our Board of Trustees will contribute up to $10,000 to help save wildlife and wildlands! You’ll be protecting our natural heritage right now and for generations to come. If NRDC already has a place in your plans, please let us know so that we can take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.

To take the Legacy Challenge or learn more about it, please contact: Michelle Mulia-Howell Director of Gift Planning at 212-727-4421 or

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways