High Country News

Seeing Mars on Earth

Kim Stanley Robinson on how the High Sierra has influenced his science fiction. Hard on the heels of his latest science fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future — a blistering near-future vision of climate change — Kim Stanley Robinson has just published The High Sierra: A Love Story. The book is a captivating memoir laced with reflections on history, literature, geology, ecology, politics and psychogeography, all strung on the narrative thread of the author’s lifelong enchantment with rambling and scrambling in a wilderness without trails on a precarious planet spinning in space.
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Western courts grapple with climate change

Rocky Mountain teens sue over fossil fuel-friendly policies. In Montana, wildfires are destroying ranchland, drought is killing fish, and heat is harming traditional tribal food sources like huckleberries. To the south, Utahns are inhaling a toxic concoction of tailpipe and smokestack emissions, made worse by wildfire smoke. And young Westerners say these states are infringing on their rights by boosting fossil fuel development and causing the changes in the climate that accelerate these problems.
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The Yurok Tribe is bringing condors home to Northern California skies

A dead seal washes ashore in Northern California. Ravens and turkey vultures peck at its eyes and tail end, but they’re not strong enough to break into the blubbery carcass. For that they’d need the help of the Western Hemisphere’s largest land-based bird: the condor. With feathers as long as your femur and the body weight of a human preschooler, a condor can hold down a big carcass and rip into it with the torque of its meat hook-shaped beak. It may seem macabre from a Western perspective, but condors clean up with an efficiency other animals — including humans — cannot match. It’s one reason the Yurok Tribe has spent over a decade working to bring them home.

Snail scars provide insight into crab population changes

Small chips in snail shells provide a 100,000-year record on California’s crustaceans. This story was originally published by Hakai Magazine and is republished here by permission. The Pacific coast of North America is littered with black turban snails, and many of these thimble-sized mollusks bear triangle-shaped chips on their...

The Navajo Nation’s first economist takes a fresh view on development

Alisha Murphy discusses her vision of a robust tribal economy and the importance of community input. Alisha Murphy, who is Diné, has always had a story to tell. It just happens to come in the form of economic data and its details. In November 2021, Murphy assumed her post as the Navajo Nation’s first-ever full-time economist. Her appointment comes at a time of great transition, both for the Navajo Nation and for Indian Country as a whole. Murphy has spent her first half-year in the Navajo Nation’s Division of Economic Development focused on how best to assist the tribe as it transitions away from a coal-centered economy. She is also currently pursuing a doctorate in economic development at New Mexico State University.

Yes, the drought really is that bad

The Western U.S. is experiencing its longest continuous streak of dry years since 800 A.D. Across the West, state leaders are bracing against the long-term impacts of aridification. In late April, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown added four additional counties to the ‘drought emergency’ tally — now, half the state is in a state of emergency. Further south, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which gets water to millions of city dwellers, restricted outdoor water use for the first time ever. In Colorado, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated the entire state a “primary natural disaster area” due to the threat of drought — also considered an ‘unprecedented’ move. The Southwest, as a whole, has been hit hard with dry conditions: Utah and New Mexico both issued separate emergency declarations, one for water scarcity and the other for wildfire.

How to choose a pronoun

The land does not care what parts of you are male or female. I am a man, but sometimes I hate it. It is an inexplicable sensation — dysphoria, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a state of feeling very unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied.” Sometimes, I am all those things. Sometimes, I am none.

What the Ukraine war means for Western lands

War hawks and climate hawks alike are calling for energy independence. This is the first installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up for our regular newsletters to get it in your inbox.

Census undercount threatens federal food, health programs on reservations

Federal money, important for aid programs, is tied to the inaccurate population numbers. The 2020 census missed nearly 1 of every 17 Native Americans who live on reservations, an undercount that could very well lead to insufficient federal funding for essential health, nutrition, and social programs in remote communities with high poverty rates and scarce access to services.

Ashes and silver linings: Marshall Fire survivors reflect

This piece originally appeared on Inside Climate News and is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here. Four months after a Christmas-week wildfire ravaged their neighborhoods, destroying more than 1,000 homes near Boulder, Colorado, survivors are navigating post-traumatic stress disorder, dizzying bureaucracy and the prospect of a new normal for wildfire season.

Two Southwest tribes raise concerns over uranium storage

In White Mesa, Utah, at America’s last uranium mill, a pool of toxic waste is emitting dangerous amounts of radon to the surrounding communities, among them the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. This isn’t news: In November 2021, High Country News reported on the improperly stored waste and its impacts on the community, and in December — thanks to EcoFlight’s aerial photography and a proactive tribal government — the Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice to Energy Fuels Resources, ordering it to address the issue. Five months later, however, the improper storage practices persist.

When the quietest of all Hawaiian honeycreepers went silent

Despite conservation efforts to save the po’ouli, the species was declared extinct in 2019. This story was originally published by the Guardian and is republished here through the Climate Desk partnership. The last po’ouli died in an unusual nest. Too weak to perch, the brownish-greyish songbird rested in a...

Wyoming jury finds corner crossers not guilty

The hunters escaped criminal trespass charges, but still face a civil suit. Want to catch up on big developments quickly? See more stories here. Four hunters in Wyoming were charged with trespassing on land they never touched last fall (“Hunter hopscotch,” March 2022). The men used a stepladder to hopscotch over the corners where private ranch and Bureau of Land Management land parcels meet, alternating like the squares of a checkerboard. But like other Western states, Wyoming has no statute explicitly allowing or prohibiting “corner crossing,” the practice of accessing public land where its corners touch. The charges set off a debate over what constitutes trespassing: the hunters never set foot on private land, but the ranch owners claim that doesn’t matter because the hunters violated the airspace above their property, and that, they believe, constitutes trespassing. A civil and a criminal lawsuit followed.

Utah wants to build an oil railway through a wilderness area

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is republished here through the Climate Desk partnership. In the journal from his legendary 1869 expedition down the Colorado River, explorer John Wesley Powell called the remote Tavaputs Plateau in Eastern Utah “one of the stupendous features of this country.” The one-armed Civil War hero marveled at the Wasatch Mountains soaring above the Uinta Basin, the canyons carved by the Green River thousands of feet below, and the Uinta Mountains to the north, where, he wrote, “among the forests are many beautiful parks.”

A culture of connectivity

The work ahead will require more collaboration and less divisiveness. When you fly across the country, you see shapes and lines on the land scrolling far below: mountains and rivers, freeways and causeways, the green geometry of irrigated rectangles and circles. Much more difficult to discern are the geopolitical delineations: state lines, county lines, international borders, crazily gerrymandered voting districts. This borderless view is a more accurate reflection of the way people in the West are connected to and reliant on each other for essential resources and acts of kindnesses.

Letters to the editor, May 2022

Your April edition was terrific — great photos and graphics as well as quality stories. I particularly enjoyed Wufei Yu’s research on one Chinese American family’s history in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with its connections to Jemez Pueblo (“Origin Story”). It is difficult to be reminded of all of the mistakes our lawmakers and citizenry have made over the years in limiting the rainbow connections of all immigrant groups. Hopefully, we as a nation are learning to be more inclusive and celebrate our differences, however slowly.

How place names impact the way we see landscape

Imagine scaling a peak so intimidating that it was called El Capitan, a name ringing of conquest, conferred by the Mariposa Battalion, an Indian-killing militia, in the mid-1800s. Imagine the rush of surveying Yosemite Valley from high atop it. “I wanted to test myself against El Cap,” said Alex Honnold, the only climber to free solo the 3,000-foot cliff, in an April 2018 TED talk. “It represented true mastery.”