Sunday, June 24, 2012

Where There's Smoke, There Shouldn't Be Political Profit

Steve Pearce’s effort to turn the Gila forest fire into profit for his pals is one more vivid reminder that he’s an embarrassment to New Mexico.

With the fire still raging, Pearce wrote in these pages that the blame for it belonged on environmentalists ("extreme interest groups") and the Forest Service, and that more logging would prevent or limit future forest fires.

Like most good con jobs, his piece has a grain of truth in it: clearing of smaller growth can help, as can prescribed burns in some circumstances. (And clear-cutting the wilderness would probably stop the forest fires for decades.)

However, his suggestion that commercial logging could solve the problem is pure nonsense. (For one thing, this fire is burning in Wilderness, where no such motorized vehicles and tools would be permitted by law. He must know that. So why should the Congressman berate the Forest Service for not allowing what Congress has forbidden it to allow?)

More generally, what loggers want is not the smaller growth that helps forest fires travel.

They want the larger, commercially marketable timber.

They don’t want to thin forests by taking a tree here and there, or the small stuff.

They want to cut in as concentrated a way as they can, to minimize costs and logistical problems and maximize profits.

The fact is that commercial logging not only doesn’t prevent forest fires, it tends to exacerbate the problem.

The bulk of scientific and expert opinion is that logging is more of a problem than a solution.

Mr. Pearce either knows that (and doesn’t address it because he can’t) or he doesn’t know it. Not knowing it would mean he was stupid (which I doubt) or just didn’t care.

I’m no expert. I read Pearce’s column, had some doubts, and did some research. I talked to some people who’ve actually spent much of their lives fighting forest fires; and I read a substantial amount of material. Sources like the Forest Service, the General Accounting Office, and scientists tend to warn about the dangers of logging. Most nonprofit conservation / environmental groups agree. Logging industry spokesfolk and conservative "free enterprise" think-tanks tend to disagree.

Pearce approaches problems differently. Rather than starting with a question, such as "What’s the evidence of climate change?" or "What’s best for our forests?", and consulting as varied and qualified a set of experts and observers as possible, Pearce seems to start with an answer ( "Facing up to global warming could be bad for business" or "Private enterprise logging forests is better than the government protecting them") and articulates a position his financial backers and political allies will approve. Then, if necessary, his people find whatever industry flack will sit in a witness chair and say whatever absurdity Pearce’s position needs said.

An honest opinion piece for Pearce’s side would at least address the bulk of scientific and historical evidence on the other side, and try to explain why it’s all wrong. Maybe it is. But "because I say so" isn’t strong evidence.

An honest look at the forest-fire issue would also have to recognize that some major causes of the problem are things Pearce likes or doesn’t believe in.

A couple of experts told me that the kind of fire we’re seeing more and more often "used to be the 10% case, the perfect fire storm when all bets are off." Now those rare conditions – very low humidity, high winds, combined with high temperature -- are the new normal. Under these conditions, fires burn hotter, and do deeper harm to the earth from which we hope trees will grow again.

"Basically what’s doing this is drought and climate," said Bryan Bird, a biologist with Wild Earth Guardians. "None of the types of fire treatments we can undertake will consistently have an effect in the new world of climate change."

Bird also noted that while "Pearce screams and yells," environmentalists, loggers, Forest Service officials, and others are "on the ground trying to find the answers, and he’s not there."

Looking into the forest fire issue, I came away with the view that dealing with this problem is more complicated than either Steve Pearce or I might like. I can’t offer some panacea here, although certain steps make sense.

We should cut or burn more undergrowth, at least in some public lands other than wilderness. That’s not something logging companies want to do. Nor could they legally do so, in areas where motorized vehicles and machinery are prohibited. (It’s also tough in a time of diminishing budgets.)

However, doing more of this also impairs the naturalness of land and interferes with wild-life. Decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. We should protect homes; but someone building in or adjacent to public lands ought not to assume that the public will disturb those lands to accommodate the new home or business.

One suggestion I heard is to revive something like the Civilian Conservation Corps. We have a major problem with unemployment. We have something that needs doing. Maybe we could pay people to spend some time in the woods clearing undergrowth. Yeah, it’d be an expense; but it might save more in fire-fighting costs than we’d spend on this sort of prevention. The military-style attack we all see on TV is often fruitless – and always extremely costly. (On the other hand, it may be an old man’s assumption that today’s youth would leave computer games and social networking behind to make some money working in the woods for awhile.)

I don’t know the answers; but unlike Steve Pearce, I don’t pretend to.

[The foregoing column appeared today, Sunday, 23 June in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Saturday Afternoon in Mesilla

It’s the first Saturday afternoon in June, and a good deal hotter than we might wish, but we ride over to Mesilla for a book-signing.

On the way out I’m musing on what’s real and what isn’t.

We’ve read the morning paper, with its two front-page photographs of the local contestant in the Miss USA Pageant. It sparked memories of having to cover the local pageant when I was a reporter. The publicity-hungry folks who had the franchise pushed me to write more and more about their show – a show celebrating a false and superficial view of women.

We’ve spent the morning at the Farmer’s Market, buying food directly from the folks who grow it; stopped to give an 81-year-old friend some of Shige’s golden beets; and listened to his lecture on the freshness of frozen food. When we pointed out that we buy from growers who’ve picked the food the day before, he bellowed, "How do you know they did?"

When we reach the Plaza, J. Paul Taylor y Romero and Ana Pacheco are sitting at a table, surrounded by people holding slim, dark books. The book is by her about him. At other tables several people are assisting . Other folks are either lined up to purchase books or standing around jawing with each other, with signed books in hand.

We join the growing line. An elderly gent is sitting on one of the park benches near us. He rises, leaning on his cane, then sits down again. The line is too long. I tell him we know he’s before us, and that if he stays where he is, we’ll come get him when we reach the front of the line.

We’re standing in Mesilla Plaza, where tourists come to gawk at the church and eat in the famous restaurant and daydream that Billy the Kid is lurking somewhere around.

Paul Taylor is sitting across the street from his home.

He has lived in this house since 1953. He grew up a few miles south of here. He and his wife first bought a house in Mesilla in 1947, when he was working at New Mexico A&M. The house lacked indoor plumbing, and for awhile he got up early each morning to dig plumbing trenches before going to work. Once when two colleagues made a surprise visit, they turned up their noses at the primitive nature of the place and urged him to rethink living out in Mesilla because of "the culture your kids will be brought up in." Taylor reminded his colleagues that it was the culture he had grown up in.

Taylor is lively and alert. He’s 91, and just back from a trip to Brazil. He exudes love and good will – and, on this occasion, is surrounded by people who love and respect him.

The elderly man we’d saved a place in line for turns out to have gone to high school with Taylor. (He’s Ralph Hackey, and he’s already been mentioned in this newspaper, in one of Claudette Ortiz’s wonderful columns. Taylor tells me Hackey was much the better tennis player.) The two of them embrace. Albert Fall was a New Mexico Senator when they were born. The two men have not seen each other much in recent years. Later Hackey, who lives up in Rincon and may not drive any more, remarks wistfully that he’d like to visit with Taylor in a setting where they’d have a little more time.

Taylor recognizes most everyone instantly, and his face lights up often with genuine joy. Me he doesn’t recognize (nor should he; we’ve only spoken once, briefly, before all my hair got shaved off), but the moment I introduce myself he mentions something I’ve written recently.

After awhile we walk across the Plaza to eat with two old friends. Outside the restaurant window a family of five passes, and each family-member, including the little blonde girl trailing behind, has a copy of the book. Reymundo, who first knew him as a teacher, praises Taylor. Dael remarks how refreshing it is when someone so publically admired is actually admirable.

When I return to the Plaza, I mention Reymundo to Taylor, who immediately says, "Yes, the Sixth Grade." Reymundo’s 72. How many grandparents, each influenced by Taylor, have in turn influenced their children and grandchildren? Taylor began his 18-year career as a state representative when he was 66. The Conscience of the Legislature. Both parties called him that.

As we put on our helmets, I notice a guy riding a bicycle pulling a shaded seat for passengers. He passes in front of the
Cesar Martinez - Pedicab
church, then stops and gabs with us awhile. He’s a city employee in El Paso who drives the pedicab on weekends. (Does Taylor find it ironic that a place his colleagues despised now has pedicabs driving tourists around?)

A woman who lives in Mesilla crosses the street from the Taylor gathering to ask if he’s indeed doing what she thinks he’s doing, then encourages him to continue. She asks where he takes people. He takes them around Mesilla. "Do you tell them about things here?" she asks. "Well, mostly they tell me," he smiles.

He cycles off, and we get on the motorcycle. When we reach Highway 28, a young couple coming the other way gives us the low wave motorcyclists give each other, and I return it, feeling a sudden burst of camaraderie.

[The column above appeared in the Las
Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 10 June, titled "Admiration for an Admirable Man."  The book is J. Paul Taylor - The Man from Mesilla, by Ana Pacheco, published this year by Museum of New Mexico Press in Santa Fe.  The book will be of particular (but certainly not exclusive) interest to folks interested in local history]

With a few spare moments this morning, I started the chapter in which Mary Helen Garcia (who just won re-nomination to the state legislature this past week) talked J. Paul Taylor into running for State Representative.  He was retiring, and looking forward to writing and other endeavors, but ended up spending 18 years in the state legislature.  The first time she takes him out to canvass, every door he knocks on gets opened by folks he knows, whose kids he taught, and who invite him in to gab -- so that she finishes one-side of a block while he's still stuck in the first home.   Then he gets bitten by a dog, tells the homeowner he's fine, and discovers he actually has an open wound on his ankle.  The hospital doctors demand the dog's identity; J. Paul won't reveal it because he'd told the woman he was okay, and sees her at 7 a.m. mass every day, and doesn't want her to feel bad; and they compromise: he won't identify the dog to them, but will drive by the home every day to keep an eye on it and make sure it's not rabid.

He combined the manner of an old world gentleman with a very modern and compassionate progressivism.  He spoke frankly, but came prepared.  Both sides of the aisle called him "The Conscience of the Legislature" -- and even though he retired from the legislature in 2004, just eight years ago, the hyper-partisanship in Washington and Santa Fe these days makes that sort of thing seem like a century ago.