Category: Stories

Things I have written, and such

Big Hype, Small Dams

Big Hype, Small Dams

pc_toothrock_tunnel_bonneville_dam_1940sIn the July 27 issue of High Country News, I have a news story looking at the push for small dams in the Pacific Northwest — and the rest of the country. Utilities claim that small-scale hydropower is green energy, like wind or solar, but environmentalists say dams are as awful as, well, dams.

From the article:

Boosters tout small-scale hydroelectric projects — defined as generating less than 30 megawatts, or enough to power up to 30,000 homes — as carbon-neutral and more fish-friendly. And the resource has staggering potential: Just a fraction of the possible sites on [the state of] Washington’s waterways could power millions of homes.

But although utilities, investors and speculators are getting into the game, small-hydro development won’t be easy or cheap without policy incentives and tax credits. And not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. “We look at our watersheds and waterways in the Northwest as pretty stressed already. The impacts are apparent everywhere,” says Rich Bowers, Northwest coordinator for the Hydropower Reform Coalition, a network of 140-plus environmental and outdoor recreation groups.

It’s no surprise that the two interests have different takes on the potential and consequences of small hydro, but the battle is still playing out as Congress bats around which energy sectors will score incentives as “renewable” energy. Federal and state policy moves and tax breaks will play a major role in how these projects move forward.

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Rainbow Blight?

Rainbow Blight?

Anyone looking for something to do this Fourth of July and within striking distance of the tiny town of Cuba, New Mexico, should go check out the Rainbow Family at its annual gathering on national forest lands. As usual, the”dis-organization” is having run-ins with the Forest Service over the thousands of unpermitted campers and the occupation of a chunk of public land.

In 2005, I spent some time with the Rainbows outside Steamboat Springs on the Routt National Forest, reporting for the Colorado Springs Independent on the group’s disciples, and its annual battles with the Forest Service.

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Review: Bargaining for Eden

Review: Bargaining for Eden

Writer Stephen Trimble watched Snowbasin, a small-time ski hill outside Salt Lake City, transform into another glitzy resort and wondered why. His book, Bargaining for Eden, which I reviewed for Orion Magazine in its Jan/Feb 2009 issue, offers introspection on how we utilize and live on our lands, set in contrast with the biography and actions of the reclusive billionaire behind the remaking at Snowbasin.

(I mostly read this book while traveling through Mexico via bus, and so it will forever be linked in my mind with the Chiapas rainforest, the smell of bus toilets and the Spanish-dubbed version of Santa Clause 2.)

Anywho, check out the full review at Orion’s website. Here’s the first graf:

What drives individuals and corporations to erect mega-malls and luxury resorts in place of open meadows and sleepy communities? It is quite literally the million-dollar question. Money, however, is usually only part of the answer. As Stephen Trimble writes in Bargaining for Eden, “Caught between dreams, we are all greedy, and we are all generous. How then do we create a structure for our communities that expresses our altruism more than our self-interest?”

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My Mingus Immersion

My Mingus Immersion

This is a long essay I wrote that appeared in the Mountain Gazette in February 2005, exploring my compulsion to listen to Mingus when I’m driving through national parks and other open landscapes. The piece is no longer available on MG‘s website, since the publication changed ownership hands, so I’m reprinting it here, Ah Um…


Mingus in the Mountains

Mountain Gazette, #111, February 2005
By Joshua Zaffos

I was somewhere around Tower Falls near the heart of Yellowstone National Park when Mingus began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “That’s definitely a wolf retreating into the trees….” And suddenly there was the crash of cymbals and the mashing of piano keys flooding the car, which was going about fifty miles an hour with open windows to Mammoth Hot Springs. And a voice was screaming: “Oh yeah, Oh yeah, Jesus, I know…”

*******

mingus_1976Charles Mingus was a jazz bassist, pianist and composer, one of the most innovative musicians in the genre. His music evokes both Duke Ellington and Johann Sebastian Bach. His songs are ornate and scripted opuses peppered with both compositional virtuosity and emotionally wrought improvisation.

Mingus strived to create music that was an extremely detailed scheme in spontaneity. America’s national parks are similar experiments to Mingus’ balancing act between composition and improvisation. The national park system – as it was conceived in the second half of the Nineteenth Century – is an innovative approach to preserving the natural and wild landscapes of our country in tidy boundaries and structured regulations. It’s a model that the entire world has copied: There are more than 30,000 parks and other protected areas around the globe covering roughly 12 percent of the Earth’s surface. In Yellowstone, remnant populations of Grizzly bears and bison and reintroduced wolves live on, rivers flood and flow freely, and undisturbed geysers burble and erupt.

Of course, just driving through a park leaves a body suspended between the controlled setting of combustion engine-powered vehicle on paved road and the wildness beyond the windshield. I usually listen to Mingus’ late 50s and early 60s recordings on my car stereo at these moments – when I’m driving from fee station to trailhead, visitor center to campground. The composition, “Ecclusiastics,” blares as I spot Canis lupis stretching her legs for the groves of aspen and Doug fir. The music stirs both earnestness and excitement towards nature. Which may be why it sounds so damn good coming out of my speakers in Yellowstone, or any other national park.

*******

Charles Mingus was born in the Sonoran Desert in Nogales, Arizona, on the Mexican border in 1922. His father, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, was a mulatto born in North Carolina; his mother was half-English, half-Chinese. When Mrs. Mingus became deathly ill shortly after Charles’ birth, the family moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. She died when Mingus was only eight months old.
In Watts, his father told him he was superior to other blacks because of his relatively light complexion and blue eyes. But on the playgrounds, Mingus was called a “yellow nigger” and his friends were other outcasts including Japanese, Mexican and Italian children.
His father remarried a woman, half-black and half-Indian, who encouraged Charles and his sisters to embrace European classical music and take up instruments. Further stirring the pot of early cultural influences, his stepmother would take little Charles to a “Holy Rollers” church where the choir belted out improvisational big-band gospel music.

He had a trombone at age six, heard his first Ellington record at nine. He switched over to the cello as he approached his teens but eventually began playing bass to gain a seat in the high school band. Mingus listened to Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy while simultaneously discovering jazzman Lester Young and blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. He studied and played with jazz bassists but also learned from symphonic players and attended classical music workshops.

Mingus got his first major studio gigs with Lionel Hampton and Illinois Jacquet in the mid 40s. One reviewer praised the young bassist for “a different style, completely his own.” On one of the first recordings under his own band, critic Ralph Gleason reported that Mingus “has proven there should be no segregation in music between classical and jazz.”

By the 1950s, Mingus started holding “jazz workshops” in New York City. These were mostly jam sessions, according to biographer, Brian Priestly, where Mingus wouldn’t write down any of the compositions for his fellow musicians while “freeing (or forcing) them to interpret arranged passages in a more musical, and more personal way, rather than merely reproducing something fixed.”

Mingus seemed to know he was hitting stride, even if the record companies didn’t. His albums of the late 50s and early 60s (those that provide the soundtrack for my auto-treks through parks) were recorded on a variety of labels. That music evokes church gospel, nightclub jazz standards, big band follies, slave work songs and classical concertos. His works borrow from Charlie Parker, Sergei Rachmaninov and the Gershwin brothers. Drummer Dannie Richmond remembers Mingus schooling him through the bewildering arrangements: “No, at this point you have to whisper, and there have to be other points where there’s planned chaos!”

As he continued to compose, he also advocated for “collective improvisation.” He hated sidemen that couldn’t read music; he hated sidemen that could only read music. He would chew out fellow musicians for repeating a solo.

“‘I’m trying,’ adds Mingus, ‘to play the truth of what I am,’” read the liner notes of his 1962 album, Oh Yeah. “‘The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.’”

*******

Nature is changing all the time, too, and in more and different ways than the casual park tourist might recognize after a handful of Yellowstone vacations. There’s a constant transformation at play in the natural world – but we still think of Yellowstone as a fortified and fixed haven of Grizzlies, bison, wolves, bald eagles and cutthroat trout, forever free to roam, soar and swim amid a sheltered environment.

“‘Wilderness’ has a deceptive concreteness at first glance,” writes Roderick Frazier Nash in the prologue of his classic natural history book, Wilderness and the American Mind. The concept of national parks and wilderness areas as neatly arranged parcels of nature insulated from threat reinforces this myth.

According to Nash, the American wilderness movement grew in Eastern cities, where intellectuals romanticized the vanishing, Wild West frontier. Osborn Russell, an 1830s explorer of the Yellowstone region, was mesmerized by the “wild romantic scenery of this valley.” Nash says Russell’s era marked the beginning of an American ethic towards discovering aesthetic value in wilderness, beauty in bedlam. Romantic musings caused wilderness to become part of the evolving American culture.

Intellectuals and artists of that era, most prominently represented by Henry David Thoreau, believed wilderness was an integral ying of American culture if properly balanced with the yang of a civilized and refined society.  But Nineteenth Century wilderness appreciation failed to recognize the truly dynamic character of natural landscapes even as it gave birth to a preservation movement. Nash calls the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 the “world’s first instance of large-scale wilderness preservation” and it started a groundbreaking trend towards protecting forests, canyons and rivers and the fish and wildlife that inhabit them. But capturing wilderness in a box, even as big as Yellowstone, is practically absurd.

One example among many is fire management in and around the park. In 1872, everyone assumed that Yellowstone was a wild and pristine environment, existent through the mysterious workings of nature. Nobody recognized the role of Native American tribes in manipulating the landscape through fire. Modern research including studies of tree rings shows that fires occurred up to five times more frequently in the Yellowstone region before settlers pushed the Native Americans out of the area. Fires sparked by the tribes mimicked lightning-caused strikes but were started in order to thin dense young stands of lodgepole pines and regenerate aspen groves for the benefit of wildlife.

The frequent burns also precluded massive infernos. After Yellowstone became a park, the manmade blazes that had created the “wild” landscape ceased. A century of fire suppression created the crowded forest conditions that resulted in the cataclysmic wildfires of 1988. Modern fire management has progressed beyond extensive fire suppression, but at the same time park officials remain wary of more frequent prescribed burns.

In the context of this example, ecologist Daniel Botkin says our mode of thinking towards resource management remains a Nineteenth Century perspective. In his 1992 book, Discordant Harmonies, Botkin says we still choose to protect and manage natural landscapes by merely throwing a fence around them. We treat parks as if they were divine mechanisms that maintain a balance on their own.

Botkin tells the story of elephants in Tsavo National Park in Kenya that, although native to the region, grazed the grasslands to a wasteland when they were unable to migrate outside park boundaries during severe drought. Similarly, when bison herds leave the confines of Yellowstone and cross onto private or state land in Montana, state officials kill them for fear of brucellosis, an infectious livestock disease that bison may carry. The 1988 Yellowstone fires were acceptable and even desired until they pushed outside park borders and threatened private lodges and ranches.

The outdated strategy in parks is akin yet crucially different to Mingus’ musical approach of “planned chaos.” Improvisation, for Mingus, wasn’t just getting up on stage and letting his front line blow. Such spontaneity ironically required frequent gigging to build familiarity over the musical landscape and understanding between the collective parts of the band. And then to assure that each player wouldn’t reproduce the same solo each time but instead let his intuition guide the course through the music. Jazz critic Max Harrison once lauded Mingus because “The unity of his works depends not on their technical organization…but is largely of an emotional order.”

It is the Native American version of fire management – and planned chaos – that more closely resembles Mingus’ experimentation. Botkin laments that we manage by “the analytic and the rational…and tend to deal with nature by freezing it conceptually,” without assimilating “the intuitive and emotive” into management plans. In other words, not only have we failed to account for our scientific knowledge of nature’s dynamic character when thinking about parks and wilderness, but we don’t figure in our emotion and passion for the environment either.

Yellowstone, at 2.2 million acres, is still the largest national park in the lower 48. But landscape ecologists now recognize that a conservation area of approximately 382 million acres – from Yellowstone all the way north to the Yukon, known as Y2Y – is probably necessary to actually preserve the plants and wildlife we hoped to save in the national park.

The increased land base of Y2Y follows wildlife migration corridors and physical watershed boundaries instead of political borders. It also accounts for regional and global pressures on Yellowstone’s localized resources including air pollution from coal-fired power plants, water quality degradation from hard rock mining, and climate change.

*******

Through the 60s and 70s, Mingus continued to experiment between composition and improvisation. His works became larger and more complex, culminating in performances at New York City music halls with 20-person ensembles often freelancing through songs. He was trying to resolve through his music all those varied – and constantly changing – aspects of his self.

“My need is to express my thoughts and feelings as fully as is humanly possible all the time,” Mingus wrote in his manic and sometimes fictitious autobiography, Beneath the Underdog.

Throughout his musical career, Mingus played with Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and many, many other titans of jazz. He also wrote scores for films and plays, worked with classical composers and even collaborated with Joni Mitchell. In 1972, Mingus undertook an “operatic ballet” of symphonic jazz where the players needed to “compose as they improvise.” “But I want to get to the point where everyone playing something of mine will be able to think in terms of creating a whole,” said Mingus, “will be able to improvise compositionally so that it will be hard to tell where the writing ends and the improvisation begins.”

By the time Mingus died in 1979 of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, he had won a Guggenheim Fellowship and had been honored for his musical accomplishments at the White House by President Carter. And his legacy of jazz experimentation was fully prepared to live on. Today, you can walk into an East Village club, Fez under Time Café, on most Thursday nights and see the Mingus Big Band perform his music. The 14-piece band rotates through more than 40 regular musicians. Sue Graham Mingus, the composer’s widow, oversees the troupe as well as the Charles Mingus Orchestra and she challenges the musicians to continue to honor the vision of Mingus.

Biologists such as Michael Soulé, Reed Noss and Botkin advocate for Twenty-first Century park management that emulates Mingus’ approach to music. Blurring the realms of man and nature, encouraging adaptive and collective management, thinking “in terms of creating a whole.” Despite entrenched paradigms, we are beginning to base our decisions on the constantly growing pool of technical knowledge – but we’re still lacking the “emotional order” that should also drive our protection of wild landscapes.

Most parks like Yellowstone with its Grizzly bears and highway loops are already contradictory organisms. Parks are chaos and plan, garden and jungle, composition and improvisation.  For now, they are the largest experiments our society is ready to conduct.

You don’t need to be a Ph.D. ecologist to question the outright wildness of Yellowstone or other national parks. The lines of the boxes are significant constrictions on fire patterns, wildlife migrations and flood cycles. The exit ramp and industrial-sized parking lot at Old Faithful geyser looks more like Newark Airport than a park scenic area. Most tourists take in the landscape through their vehicle windows, hurtling 45 miles an hour on asphalt no different than the Jersey Turnpike. Clearly, I’m also guilty of cruising through our ecological gems; I’ve even gotten a speeding ticket in Yellowstone.

Parks are explicitly for the ever-changing mass of people with their ever-changing values, too. But the miles of paved roads, the visitor centers, guest lodges and concession stands are all tweakings to these packaged natural areas. And the refrigerator magnets, ice cream cones and snow globes are all distractions to the emotions these places call forth in us. Mingus used to stop performances if he felt the audience wasn’t giving him proper attention. The passionate shouts and soaring crescendo of his music override the dulling of my senses that comes from sitting in my car in Yellowstone.

When people finally step out of their vehicles, away from the gift shops and into the forests, they recognize a park as a geographic and biological opus. I too have to get out of my car and turn off the Mingus to truly embrace this idea. I hike up Bunsen Peak, wander along Slough Creek or sneak off to Imperial Geyser to escape the asphalt and the view from behind my steering wheel and cracked windshield. I can travel on crowd-friendly boardwalks or bison trails and recognize chaos and plan, garden and jungle, composition and improvisation, both, neither, everything in between. After all, even Mingus believed that it’s not just two poles that tug at us.

“‘In other words, I am three,’” Charles Mingus began his autobiography.

“‘Which one is real?’” a psychiatrist asks the character Mingus.

“‘They’re all real.’”

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Hatch-22

Hatch-22

Gaggle from Lowry, Denver, Colorado (photo by cooper gary"/ https://www.flickr.com/people/gtcooper25/)   GT Cooper Photography
Gaggle from Lowry, Denver, Colorado (photo by cooper gary”/ https://www.flickr.com/people/gtcooper25/)

Northern Colorado scientists have developed birth control for geese, but hunters have another idea for thinning the flocks

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, May 10, 2007

by Joshua Zaffos

Jim Gammonley walks through goose turds at Warren Park in south Fort Collins, approaching an unflappable gaggle of birds that includes a brood of fuzzy goslings. The bird-research program manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife tags geese in Warren Park and other sites annually to track their whereabouts.

The city parks and public and private golf courses of the northern Front Range are prime real estate for Canada geese. For centuries, the geese migrated up and down the continent, summering in the Great North and retreating south to the warm weather for the winter. Resident populations were generally uncommon.

But those patterns began to change 
in the early 20th century. Overzealous, unregulated hunters and habitat destruction nearly exterminated the geese. Wildlife biologists responded by reintroducing captive birds to maintain their stocks. The scientists became so good at the practice that states without resident goose populations soon had them.

Colorado began releasing Canada geese in 1957 at College Lake, which butts against the foothills outside Fort Collins. The plaque at the lake commemorates the practice and honors G.I. “Father Goose” Crawford, the Division of Wildlife official credited with restoring Canada geese to Northern Colorado.

This is where Colorado’s – and, to some extent, the country’s – goose problem started. Millions of geese sit around, root through and poop all over America’s golf courses, city parks, town squares and any other suburban refuge of lawn and water. College Lake isn’t even preferred territory anymore.

“By the 1970s, we had been successful enough with our efforts that we began gathering up our goslings for other states,” Gammonley says. But as other states established their own resident goose populations, Colorado ran out of places to export the birds and their annual hatchlings, many of which remained in the mild and maintained environs of suburbia.

On the other side of the lake, at
the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC), scientists may have developed a solution to thin out the masses of resident geese that don’t know, or want, to migrate each year.

The federal researchers
of the NWRC, along with a private entrepreneur from California, have developed birth control for geese. OvoControl-G prevents goose eggs from hatching. It looks kind of like Corn Pops.

“OvoControl is the first wildlife contraceptive ever, so there’s no roadmap out there,” says Erick Wolf of Innolytics, Inc., which partnered with the NWRC to research and develop the bait/ birth control.

The contraceptive could change the way wildlife managers control pesky suburban bird populations, like flocks of pigeons and geese. Its acceptance could also lead to similar control for herds of deer and other animals that are running amok in comfy, suburban and exurban spaces,once their natural habitat. But some hunters and outfitters fear birdie birth control will lead to less birds to shoot, and state wildlife agencies, dependent on hunting license revenues, will have to weigh in on the matter, and possibly figure out how to control that other form of not-so-wild
life: humans.

Planned parenthood

The Front Range’s human population began exploding around the same
time as the goose population. New neighborhoods — and parks, open spaces and golf courses — make cozy goose habitat. Children and seniors feed birds. Today, about 15,000 Canada geese reside year-round along the Front Range between Fort Collins and Pueblo.

Nationally, the numbers are even more staggering: Five million geese call the U.S. home, but only 2 million migrate across the continent.

Another astounding number: A goose excretes 1.5 pounds of feces a day, increasing human health risks of E. coli and Listeria.

Colorado has long since stopped reintroducing Canada geese. As in most states, goose management is now a combination of hunting and harassment, with the latter being preferred in and around cities for safety and humanitarian reasons.

During the spring breeding season, biologists will addle, or shake, eggs to detach the yolk from the membrane wall and keep them from hatching. Some wildlife managers will also puncture shells. In Colorado, the weapon of choice is a corn- oil spray that suffocates the shell pores
and, again, prevents hatching. (Breaking or crushing eggs isn’t all that practical because geese will simply lay a new batch.) But none of these measures really do anything to alter goose behavior.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates all management activities because Canada geese are classified as migratory birds, regardless of whether a population actually flies south for the winter. The Colorado Division of Wildlife holds a special permit from the federal agency to oil eggs. The state then registers and trains homeowners associations, golf course superintendents and parks staff.

Since the state received its permit in 2001, 44 separate entities, mostly around metro Denver, have registered to “treat” eggs or destroy nests. Last year, three permittees signed up in Larimer County and, according to Division of Wildlife stats, destroyed 27 nests and 77 eggs. Across Colorado, trained managers destroyed 442 nests and 2,555 eggs.

Dozens of other hazing measures do not require a permit. They recall a string of plot devices from Road Runner cartoons and are seemingly as successful.

“We have a guy that goes out every morning and chases away the geese
that have flown in overnight,” says Scott Robbins, superintendent for Ptarmigan Golf Course, located between Fort Collins and Windsor off Highway 392. The course has received a state permit to oil eggs, but the greens crew uses hazing tactics more frequently.

Robbins bought a remote-control boat to chase off geese on the course’s lake. His staff uses flash tape that reflects into the sky to discourage birds from landing, as well as scare balloons, inflated balls with bull’s eyes that are supposed to look like a predator’s steely pupils. “It kind of works on the migratory geese, but the resident ones, they’ve seen everything,” Robbins says. “The geese will not even generally move for a golf cart.”

At Fort Collins’ city 
golf courses, manager 
Jerry P. Brown has tried
 scaring off resident birds
 using everything from 
inflatable alligators to
 goose carcasses. Dogs, 
which will chase geese
 but won’t kill them, are
 his “best weapon of 
harassment,” and the city courses also have state permits to oil eggs. (Depending on a city’s laws, some parks or golf courses fire blank cracker shells to frighten the geese into moving elsewhere.)

“We do it simply because geese are
a big nuisance to our customers and to us,” Brown says, “and they’re a nuisance because of the pooping. A golf course is a smorgasbord to a goose.”

The kibble contraceptive


Neither Robbins nor Brown keep track 
of how much time and labor are spent fighting back the geese that stick around all year, but both say that if the gaggles grow, birth control is worth consideration.

“You’re basically swapping technology for labor,” says Wolf, of his product’s benefits.

Unlike Bill Murray’s gopher-hating character in Caddyshack, all a golf-course superintendent would need to take care of his winged annoyances
is a pan of OvoControl,
served every morning
over the two-month
breeding season.

“After about two
days, the geese are
standing in the parking
space,” waiting for
the bait, Wolf says. “It
looks like dog-food
kibbles and it tastes
like bread.” He speaks
from firsthand experience, having sampled the semi-soft morsels himself during the testing phases.

OvoControl doesn’t prevent birds from laying eggs, but it greatly reduces egg hatchability by breaking down the wall between the membrane and the yolk. The active ingredient is nicarbazin, a compound developed by Merck & Co. about 50 years ago to stave off a parasite disease in chickens.

“This is one of the compounds that provided the poultry industry the means to grow chicken at a large scale,” Wolf says.

Roughly a decade ago, Wolf was working for a company that was manufacturing for Merck when he realized nicarbazin prevented some chicken eggs from hatching. His boss saw the realization as an opportunity, and Wolf began studying how the compound could be used to produce the same result with resident geese. Soon his quest led him to contact the staff at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins.

Bait and glitch

The NWRC serves as the research arm for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Wildlife Services branch (formerly known as Animal Damage Control).

For many decades, the department dealt with varmints and problem animals by killing them as efficiently as possible. But as environmental values have changed, so has the mindset of wildlife managers. Today, NWRC scientists spend lots of time working on humane control solutions for prairie dogs, wolves and coyotes, as well as aggressive strategies for knocking back exotic species, like feral pigs, Gambian rats, nutria and brown tree snakes, which prey upon or displace native animals.

The center was experimenting
with its own contraceptive when Wolf approached them, says NWRC Product Development Research Manager Kathleen Fagerstone.

As many as 15 NWRC biologists, chemists and other researchers teamed with Wolf starting in 1998. A first round of tests on Japanese quail showed the contraceptive was working.

In 2000, Congress allocated $2 million over four years for the NWRC to continue its experiments. NWRC scientists knew how nicarbazin worked, so the major challenge was tinkering for the proper dosage, then making the bait palatable.

“We went through several years of just trying to get the geese to eat it,” Fagerstone says.

The center kept geese in feeding pens on its campus, and the scientists finally mixed a wheat-based recipe that the birds wanted to gobble. Next, they had to figure out if the dosage was right, since geese won’t lay eggs in captivity.

After years of research, OvoControl was ready for a battery of tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The bureau studied the bait’s toxicity, how it breaks down in the environment and its potential consequences on other birds and wildlife, before approving it
in late 2005. (OvoControl could affect other birds’ hatchability, although songbirds don’t breed at the same time as geese.)

“This is the first contraceptive that EPA has registered — for anything,” Fagerstone says. “It has been a learning experience for researchers and regulators, and now it will be one for the managers.”

Hunters fire back

The Humane Society and PETA have praised the animal-friendly breakthrough of OvoControl. The product also has
a thumbs-up from the American Bird Conservancy, a national nonprofit group that advocates to protect threatened
and endangered bird species. Michael Fry, the group’s pesticides and birds director, says he had some initial concerns
over potential birth deformities from OvoControl to those goslings that do hatch, but he is satisfied with the testing.

Despite the endorsements, only eleven sites in three states — Oregon, Rhode Island and California — are trailblazing into the realm of birth control for geese. They include a U.S. Navy military installation, several golf courses, and private homeowners associations and municipal lands.

Because OvoControl is the first product of its kind, the federal government is overseeing its use in the same way
as lethal measures. States are patching together rules to allow — or reject — its application.

City parks districts and a condo development in Illinois also approached Wolf to set up treatment sites, but he says those got tossed after the state Department of Natural Resources ruled that use of OvoControl, as a chemical, is illegal. The contraceptive was classified with poisons and explosives. The motivation wasn’t scientific, Wolf claims, but the result of pressure from hunting groups, which contribute a big chunk to the Department of Natural Resources’ budget through the purchase of hunting licenses.

“The way they view this thing is, if you contracept a goose, that’s one less goose to kill,” Wolf says. “Our take is that resident geese are rarely shot.”

Wolf says he’s encountered resistance from fish and game agencies and hunters in other states, too. Since no one has formally applied to use OvoControl in Colorado, Wolf isn’t sure how the state and local hunters will respond. Boulder County Parks and LongmontParks both made initial inquiries about using the contraceptive, but Wolf says they started looking too late in the season to receive treatments. Brown, the Fort Collins Manager of Golf, says he would “absolutely” try out OvoControl, but isn’t familiar with the product.

“There’s no reason for us not to permit it,” says Gammonley of the state’s wildlife division. “If we’re going to start using OvoControl, in some ways, it’s probably less controversial.”

The birth control is undoubtedly less controversial to city- park birdwatchers and animal-rights types, who are against destroying eggs and nests and harassing geese. But the hunting community’s reaction isn’t clear, and bird hunters in Colorado have clout with the Division of Wildlife.

Based on division estimates, Colorado has sold an annual average of 15,843 licenses to goose hunters since 1999. Goose hunters spend about $1 million a year in license fees that go directly to the state Division of Wildlife. That doesn’t include guide services, gun and ammo purchases, hotels, food and orange vests.

“Goose hunting is really good in Colorado,” Gammonley says. “This is
an important resource for the state. And, believe it or not, a good number of these [resident] geese do wander to ag fields and get shot.”

Through his banding efforts along
the Front Range, Gammonley can track when a hunter kills a resident goose on the Eastern Plains. Along the northern Front Range, of every five Canada geese chomping and honking and pooping along a Loveland golf course or a Fort Collins bike trail, one is eventually pumped full of buckshot.

Most of those birds are shot during a short, early hunting season, which usually lasts one to two weeks in October.

Jim Roth, co-owner of Greeley-
based Waterfowl Haven Outfitters, isn’t familiar with OvoControl, but he worries that it could hurt his business, which serves about 900 hunters a year — many from out of state — at $200 a pop.

“I don’t think you have any idea
of what would happen” to population numbers, he says. “I’d be against it. All they have to do is lengthen the season if they wanted to get [kill] more birds.”

Tad Stout is a goose-hunting guide in Severance, and he calls the early season “an integral part of our business.” But he isn’t worried about OvoControl ruining his livelihood.

“It’s not a concern at all,” says Stout, who graduated from Colorado State University with a fisheries and biology degree and first started guiding with his father, known as “Mister Goose” (notto be confused with “Father Goose” Crawford at College Lake).

“My skepticism is [over] the effectiveness,” Stout adds. “It would take a pretty aggressive, pretty extensive program to put a dent in Canada geese, and we’ve created pretty good habitat for them.”

Habitat for humanity

Wolf is now waiting for EPA registration of a new form of OvoControl aimed at pigeons. With no hunting constituency for the urban pests, he expects less opposition and hopes that acceptance of pigeon contraceptives could wear down resistance to the goose control.

In the meantime, Northern Coloradans continue to create “pretty good habitat” for resident geese. With thousands
of new homes to be constructed and dozens of new golf courses and malls
to follow, developers typically won’t
pay much attention to how their water features or landscaping might attract birds, Gammonley says. But they want a quick fix when goose poop is littering the fairway on the fourteenth hole.

Gammonley and other wildlife managers know there is no silver bullet or bait or radio-controlled boat that will override or eliminate the habits of resident geese. The same axiom holds for educating people and informing our land use as we convert farms, wetlands and rural stopovers for migratory
geese into subdivisions, office parks and suburban sanctuaries for resident geese. Which ever-growing group of residents will be easier to train to take the bait?

“That’s kind of the problem,” Gammonley says. “People and geese like the same things.”

 

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Snow Job

Snow Job

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Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, DATE (also published in Colorado Springs Independent, DATE)
By Joshua Zaffos

Heading through Blue Sky Basin at Vail Mountain on a recent powder day, the snow at the country’s most popular ski resort seems fluffier and fresher than that on other mountains.

For the past three decades, the largest single-mountain ski area in North America has been polishing its claim that “There’s no comparison” when it comes to skiing and riding Vail. And the resort managers aren’t above using a little atmospheric alchemy to earn that edge.

On days when the storm clouds are heavy and high, Vail Mountain ensures its runs stay stacked with deep snow by seeding the clouds with silver iodide to, supposedly, squeeze more water from the skies. According to some atmospheric scientists, cloud seeding can increase snowfall by 10 to 15 percent in a season, and Vail credits it among the reasons for its world-class reputation.

Ground_Based_Silver_Iodide_Generator
A ground-based iodide generator used for cloud seeding.

Vail seeds clouds to “make sure they have the premier ski area and snowpack in the state,” says Larry Hjermstad of Durango-based Western Weather Consultants, which has run Vail’s cloud-seeding operation for 29 years.

“Granted, Vail was never intended to be [scientific] research,” says Hjermstad, who holds a master’s degree in atmospheric science from Colorado State University. Still, he says, “we’ve definitely been able to find consistent results” for increased snowpack at Vail.

Ski resort officials aren’t the only parties expressing interest in cloud seeding. As more people flood into Colorado and the West stretching demand for water during the longest drought in centuries and an era of unintentional weather modification, thanks to global warming scientists and Western water managers want to explore whether cloud seeding could help slake the region’s thirst.

Not everyone is convinced of the merits of cloud seeding, however. A 2003 expert-panel report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “there is still no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification efforts.”

In the absence of definitive statistical evidence, cloud seeding often is considered hi-tech weather voodoo.

Meteorological panacea

Scientists at a General Electric laboratory stumbled upon the concept of cloud seeding in 1946, in Schenectady, N.Y. They discovered that dry ice shavings caused supercooled water droplets which remain liquid even at freezing temperatures to solidify into tiny ice crystals. More droplets attach to the frozen crystals until they get big enough to fall as rain and snow. The process augments precipitation, but can’t conjure a storm.

Between 1949 and 1951, the U.S. military, fueled by the brainpower of the GE researchers, carried out Project Cirrus, seeding dry ice pellets into clouds around the country. When a storm from clouds seeded during the experiments covered one-fourth of New Mexico, one GE scientist concluded that the odds were “millions to one” that nature, not man, was responsible.

By the close of Project Cirrus, 30 countries around the globe had weather modification programs. The United States’ Department of Defense, Weather Bureau and Bureau of Reclamation all supported millions of dollars in research and operations.

For the next few decades, researchers focused on how seeding might increase or decrease rain and snow, dissipate fog or suppress hail. Military scientists, convinced they could slow the storms or change their courses, even seeded hurricanes through Project Stormfury. Supporters billed cloud seeding as a meteorological panacea.

“I went through grad school at a time [in the 1960s] when, if you wanted to do research on clouds and storms, it had to have a flavor of weather mod,” says William Cotton, a professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science.

While Cotton was completing his graduate and doctoral work, Colorado State professor Lewis Grant was performing a groundbreaking cloud-seeding project in Climax, Colo., a mining town near Copper Mountain Ski Resort.

Grant’s research during the first half of the 1960s provided some data suggesting that seeding wintertime mountain clouds actually could increase precipitation by at least 10 percent. Grant used silver iodide, which is nearly identical in size and shape to the cloud crystals frozen by dry ice, but easier to produce and send into the atmosphere.

Based on those studies, the Bureau of Reclamation bankrolled Grant to design the five-year-long Colorado River Basin Pilot Project in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado in the early ’70s. By then, the federal government was pouring $20 million a year into weather modification research, and the bureau hoped results would prove that cloud seeding could keep its reservoirs full. An estimated 10 percent increase ofsnow for southwestern Colorado would add enough water to support roughly 800,000 more people in both the Rio Grande and Colorado river basins.

Larry Hjermstad, Vail’s cloud-seeding guru, was one of Grant’s graduate students at CSU. After graduation, he was the contractor in charge of forecasting and seeding for the Basin Pilot Project.

The official statistical analysis of the five years’ worth of research was a disappointment. Government scientists found no real difference inprecipitation between seeded and unseeded days. But after Hjermstad took a second look at the numbers, he found a “very significant result” that supported Grant’s findings from Climax.

Convinced that wintertime cloud seeding could predictably enhance snowfall, Hjermstad went into business in 1976 as Western Weather Consultants and began seeding the clouds above Vail.

Tickling the clouds

When the forecast calls for snow, Hjermstad calls from his office in Durango a group of Vail-area landowners who host 17 cloud-seeding generators on their properties. The machines look like file cabinets or hot-water heaters with rocket boosters attached to the tops.

After Hjermstad gives the word, a landowner walks outside and flips the generator’s switch, triggering a propane tank to evaporate a solution of silver iodide. A plume of white smoke then percolates into the air, where it re-forms into ice crystals that “tickle” the storm clouds in hopes of increasing snowfall to the slopes below.

Based on dispersal patterns, Hjermstad spaces the generators five to seven miles apart, anywhere from 15 to 30 miles around Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek, both owned by Vail Resorts. From November through January, Hjermstad seeds about 20 to 30 times.

For operating the generators, the landowners earn between $1,200 and $2,500 per season. Vail doesn’t disclose the full cost of seeding, but Hjermstad says it’s just a fraction of the money the resort spends on snow-making.

Vail is among a small class of steady cloud-seeding clients interested in reaping wintertime powder or springtime snowmelt.

Vail spokeswoman Jen Brown writes via e-mail that based on an analysis of statewide snowfall records a few years ago, “we reached the conclusion that Vail and Beaver Creek … were receiving 8 to 25 percent more snow in any cycle that we were seeding than the average [of] other resorts.”

But even while Vail’s informal snowpack measurements hint at the benefits of cloud seeding, definitive evidence is in short supply. After decades of trials, nobody is claiming with almighty statistical confidence that cloud seeding increases precipitation, or even how it attempts to do so.

Even Vail spokeswoman Brown confesses, “There’s no way to determine if snowfall amounts would be the same without cloud seeding.”

The downhill decline

The year Hjermstad opened shop 1976 Colorado suffered an infamously dry winter. Facing a brutal drought the following summer, the state Legislature passed an emergency cloud-seeding program that then-Governor Richard Lamm called “a roll of the dice.”

Vail was among the ski hills, irrigation districts, power companies and water providers from every corner of the state that invested in cloud seeding.

Hjermstad and other contractors began releasing the silver iodide into the Rocky Mountain highs and made rough estimates of the effects. But because research typically costs about five times as much as seeding itself, few studies were coordinated to determine if the programs really were working.

When a series of wet years swelled the Colorado River and the West in the late ’70s and early ’80s, cloud seeding went out of favor, and was looked upon as pseudo-science. With statistical proof lagging and Reaganomics squeezing the federal budget, multimillion-dollar research packages disappeared. Overall federal funding for weather modification research since has dried up to about $500,000 a year.

Leaders of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “came to the conclusion that they really didn’t understand enough about rain and how it happened, so they really didn’t feel comfortable modifying it,” says Andrea Ray, a research scientist at the NOAA Climate Diagnostics Center in Boulder.

Most ski resorts turned to more expensive but proven snow-making techniques. Farmers saved their money for crop insurance and irrigation equipment. Atmospheric scientists turned their attention to other experiments.

The 2003 report of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed every research-based weather modification assessment since the Academy’s first analysis in 1964. The expert panel concluded “scientific proof of the effectiveness of cloud seeding was lacking (with a few notable exceptions, such as the dispersion of cold fog).”

Hjermstad recalls that just a few decades ago, CSU’s Lewis Grant regularly received more than $1 million from the government for each seeding project. “Now, $100,000 is a big research program if you can find it,” he says.

Who’ll fund the rain?

William Cotton is one of those researchers forwarding the study of weather modification $100,000 at a time. The CSU professor of atmospheric science wrote, with fellow department member Roger Pielke, Human Impacts on Weather and Climate, a book on cloud seeding. Cotton also has developed the Regional Atmospheric Modeling System, a computer simulation program for predicting and studying the effects of cloud seeding.

The Bureau of Reclamation gave Cotton $100,000 to use RAMS on behalf of Denver Water’s cloud-seeding program during winter 2003-04. The money wasn’t nearly enough, says Cotton, and the results were inconclusive.

Cotton and other cloud physics researchers face a cart-before-the-horse dilemma. Vail, utility companies and the occasional band of ranchers are ponying up the dough for cloud seeding, but no one is investing in research.

A new project in Wyoming might prove an initial step toward integrating the seeding and the research. The Equality State’s Legislature has devoted $8.8 million to a five-year project to seed clouds over the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre mountains west of Laramie.

“It does actually incorporate an experiment that is designed to be evaluated, as compared to one that is just operational,” says Dan Breed, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, which is designing and overseeing the project.

Breed, another CSU atmospheric science department alum, says the project really isn’t all that different from experiments done 30 or 40 years ago. But new technology and modeling could help deliver better results.

NCAR scientists hope to identify when to seed based on the distribution of the supercooled water droplets in the clouds and how to ensure that silver iodide released from the ground reaches the sky. The research team now is fine-tuning project specs, obtaining federal permits to place generators on government land, and experimenting with aerial seeding. The project officially will begin next winter, says Breed.

If the seeding yields the anticipated 10 percent increase in snowpack, Wyoming will reap precipitation at a cost of about $8 per acre-foot of water. Compared to reservoir construction or well development, which typically cost hundreds of dollars per acre-foot, seeding could provide a windfall of one of the arid region’s most valued resources.

Wyoming’s potential to invest in cloud seeding is unique, because the state is rolling in oil and gas royalties and severance taxes from mineral extraction. Meanwhile, states like Colorado weather tough economic times and tight budgets; Colorado now is thinking about a establishing a fund of just $75,000 for weather modification.

But the tide of federal funding for weather modification again might be turning. In the wake of 2005’s biblical slew of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and drought, Congress is considering bills, introduced in each chamber by Colorado Rep. Mark Udall and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, to create a federal weather modification research program and allocate up to $10 million a year for a decade.

Proof in the powder?

At least 66 cloud-seeding programs in 10 states west of the Mississippi are aimed at suppressing hail or increasing precipitation.

“It’s clear that water is scarce in the West,” says NCAR’s Breed. Cloud seeding should be “one of the pieces in the watershed management tool-chest.”

Breed adds that projects like the one in Wyoming could convince Arizona, Nevada and California to invest in large-scale cloud seeding in upstream states, to the benefit of everyone who relies on the Colorado River for water.

Colorado State professor William Cotton says a regional seeding program could increase precipitation 8 to 10 percent throughout the river basin, but he admits that’s “just a guess.”

“The question is, just how much can cloud seeding do to enhance snowpack?” says Cotton, sitting in his office on Colorado State’s Foothills Campus. “I don’t know the answer to that, as a scientist.”

The uncertainty looms like a thunderhead for environmentalists and others. Critics worry about the environmental and health effects of silver iodide falling from the sky and trickling into the reservoirs. They wonder whether cloud seeding boosts one location’s precipitation while depriving another.

“If you’re cloud seeding in one area, does that mean you’re taking away from another area?” asks Andrea Ray of NOAA.

Jennifer Pitt, a scientist with Environmental Defense in Boulder, says expectations that seeding will prevent drought and cultivate new development in the West are disturbing. She says research has demonstrated only that weather modification might shift where rain or snow falls, not increase the available moisture.

“I’m somewhat concerned that [cloud seeding has] become a basin-wide approach,” says Pitt. “By focusing on this, rather than a more practical approach of conserving water, [the states of the Colorado River Basin] are shifting emphasis on this critical issue.”

Cotton insists that seeding hasn’t been linked to any adverse health effects, and he calls major shifts in precipitation between a target seeding location and a downstream area “unlikely.” Lewis Grant says he’s even seen weather modification cause “spillover” effects of greater precipitation in downstream places.

Just because studies haven’t shown statistical evidence of increased precipitation, says Cotton, that doesn’t mean seeding is impractical. Critics determined to discredit cloud seeding might as well deny global warming, too, he charges, noting that the same physics are behind both weather modifications.

He points to a study he recently completed with CSU’s Israel Jirak that reveals a 30 percent decline in precipitation over the past 50 years in areas downwind of urban Denver ostensibly due to air pollution while more pristine parts of the Front Range haven’t seen any reduction.

“For some reason, the scientists involved with weather modification and research are demanding an exceptionally high level of proof,” says Larry Hjermstad. “They don’t even require that level of proof for global warming.”

And besides, can the 1.5 million riders and skiers raving about Vail’s snowpack every year be so wrong?

 

 

 

 

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Tancredo’s Crash Course

Tancredo’s Crash Course

Tom Tancredo
Tom Tancredo

From the Border to the Oval Office

Tom Tancredo drops the bomb—that he’s testing the waters for a run at the White House.

By Joshua Zaffos
Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 28, 2005

Tom Tancredo is running for president.

No, that’s not a promise…it’s a threat.

The four-term Republican congressman from Colorado’s Sixth District is traveling the country talking about locking down our national borders and kicking out the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here. And if other would-be 2008 presidential candidates don’t start following his lead, he’s ready to carry the anti-immigration banner on his own run for the White House.

“I want to see what they’ll promise to do to control the border, what they’ll promise to do to enforce the law internally in the United States against [businesses] who are hiring people who are here illegally,” says Tancredo, who lives in Littleton. “My purpose is to instigate that kind of discussion.”

The congressman certainly knows how to instigate. Most recently, his comments on a Florida talk-radio show on July 15 that an “ultimate response” to a terrorist nuclear attack on the United States could include bombing Mecca and other Islamic holy sites invoked worldwide scorn. In Colorado, 150 people gathered at the State Capitol on July 26 to say they’re embarrassed Tancredo represents the state.

He isn’t apologizing. Instead, Tancredo’s unabashedly touring the nation to ensure the “ultimate immigration reform guy”—perhaps himself—gets heard during the next presidential election. His explosive presence will be hard for contenders for the Oval Office to dodge.

In February and June, Tancredo stopped by New Hampshire, which holds the earliest state primary each presidential election. In mid-July, he swung through Iowa, home of the first party caucus, to meet with Christian Coalition members who gave him a rock-star reception. He’s also visited South Carolina, another early primary state, and will return in August.

“I commend him for what he’s doing,” says Fred Elbel, director of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform and a Tancredo supporter. “The immigration problem is a symptom that our government is no longer responsible to our people and the rule of law.”

Pundits say there’s a good reason most politicians don’t talk about immigration.

“It’s another one of the hot-button issues that people feel passionately about on both sides,” says John Straayer, a Colorado State University political science professor.

In other words, most candidates treat immigration, like abortion, as a topic that will cost them votes instead of winning them support. As Tancredo beats the drum for immigration control, Straayer believes he’s effectively pressuring colleagues to talk about the subject and take a stance.

“From a citizen standpoint, it’s never a bad thing to elevate a critical issue,” adds Straayer.

From a party standpoint, it’s another thing. President Bush has introduced a guest-worker plan that would grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants already working in the U.S.— as long as they leave after five years and then reapply for legal entry. Tancredo’s own guest-worker proposal would make every illegal immigrant a felon and boost law enforcement along the borders. He says Bush’s legislation is among the spoils for corporations who contribute big money to the GOP and rely on low-cost immigrant labor.

“When you try to equivocate on [immigration policy] because you think you’ve got big donors who are going to get mad at you,” says Tancredo, “you take a hit, and it’s both a political and moral failing.”

Statements like this win standing ovations and teary hugs from “values” voters in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina who appreciate his combination of John McCain-style honesty and Pat Buchanan-style conservatism. But those words also bring rebukes from Republican heavyweights at the national level.

In 2002, Bush’s political guru Karl Rove called Tancredo a “traitor” who was “never again to darken the door of the White House.” That ominous caveat came after the congressman told the Washington Times, “Unless we do something significant to control our borders, we’re going to have another event with someone waltzing across the borders. Then the blood of the people killed will be on this administration and this Congress.”

Last year, during the primary season, Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay told Tancredo he was “kaput.”

“You cannot think of making a career in this place [Congress],” DeLay warned.

Tancredo earned that scolding after his Team America political action committee—which he co-founded with Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister—gave money to party candidates running against incumbent GOP colleagues with pro-immigration voting records.

Ongoing scandals over the ethics of both Rove and DeLay now make Tancredo look squeaky-clean and righteous in these exchanges, which is why he believes Republicans—and Democrats—won’t be able to duck the issue in 2008.

“I think the smart political money is on the side that takes up this issue, Republican or Democrat,” says Tancredo. “Why do you think you see people like Hillary Clinton addressing it? I mean it isn’t because she believes it. It’s because she figures she’s got to win some of those red-state votes.”

Gabriela Flora agrees with Tom Tancredo that “the immigration system is broken.” But the regional organizer in Colorado for the national social justice group American Friends Service Committee is not convinced that Tancredo’s plan—to line the borders with soldiers and deport every single undocumented worker in the U.S.—is the solution. She says an increase in border troops since the 1990s has led to more deaths among immigrants sneaking into the country but failed to decrease immigration rates.

Tancredo argues that securing the borders isn’t just a matter of restricting the entry of undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America, but also one of homeland security.

“I think that those are both legitimate issues that revolve around the whole immigration debate,” says Tancredo. “Last fiscal year, we interdicted almost 30,000 people from what we call ‘countries of interest.’ So, you say to yourself, ‘Who would be being smuggled in here for somewhere up to $50,000 a head?’ It’s not someone who’s just going to work for 7-Eleven. So, there’s got to be another reason that they’re coming in, and it’s probably not a very good one.”

Responds Flora, “I think the war on terror is a very convenient way to conflate the issue. We need to talk about [immigration], not from a place of fear, but from a place of freedom and liberty.”

Tancredo clearly wants to do both. Even before he began “throwing out some ideas” about bombing Mecca, he warned a crowd in New Hampshire this June that illegal immigrants are  “coming here to kill you and you and me and my grandchildren.”

“If it gets to the point that his commentary is so continuous and explosive,” says Straayer, the political science professor, “his side suffers.”

But as long as immigration is being discussed, Tancredo acts like he’s winning—even if it triggers a political chasm within the Republican Party or a backlash against the U.S.

“I think, frankly, I won’t have to run for president,” says Tancredo.

Politicians are “almost as afraid now of running away [from the immigration issue] as they were in the past of embracing it,” he continues. “So, probably, we’re going to get one or more people fighting to see who can out-Tom-Tancredo each other, and so that would be good.”

If that’s what Americans end up voting on in 2008, will anybody be able to out-Tom-Tancredo the man himself?

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Wardrobe Malfunction

Wardrobe Malfunction

Wardrobe Malfunction

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 7, 2005

By Joshua Zaffos

It can hardly be considered a coincidence that West Nile virus swarmed America, and then the insect-repellent garment industry had a breakthrough. Just imagine a group of investors, outdoorsmen, scientists and fashionistas assembled in the late ’90s to outfit the “swat team,” as Colorado health officials have dubbed citizens wary of disease-bearing mosquitoes. In 2001, a limited liability company formed in Greensboro, North Carolina, to manufacture and sell BUZZ OFF Insect Shield apparel.

Asian tiger mosquito, a vector of West Nile virus (photo via US CDC)

Now, L.L. Bean, Orvis and Ex Officio offer shirts, shorts, hats, pants and socks “impregnated” with bug-repelling, patent-pending technology. Fort Collins residents can buy BUZZ OFF clothes at Jax and REI.

This sounds like a godsend for Coloradans and all Americans. West Nile virus landed in the U.S. in 1999 and arrived in Colorado two summers ago. That year, 2,947 people in Colorado reported West Nile symptoms and 63 died. In Larimer and Weld counties, 948 citizens were diagnosed with the virus and fifteen of them died. Last Wednesday, the counties confirmed the first two cases of West Nile for the year statewide.

Mosquitoes spread West Nile by biting infected birds and picking up the disease. Then, one little vampire flies off, sinks her proboscis into a fleshy elbow, penetrates a blood vessel and leaves behind the virus. Symptoms include fever and body aches, but can progress to convulsions, encephalitis or meningitis—which both involve inflammation of parts of the brain—and even death.

The stats and symptoms escalate that buzzing by your ear from annoying to perilous. Sweat, induced by the heat and fear, increases your chance of infection since mosquitoes are attracted by scent. The burning sting on the back of your neck becomes exacerbated by an itchy paranoia over imminent brain swelling.

Why wouldn’t a person run out and buy BUZZ OFF clothing? A wardrobe that wards off mosquitoes bearing West Nile virus and ticks with Lyme Disease could save humanity. “How does it work?” you wonder, as you stand in line at the register of your favorite outdoor clothing store. According to the tags, “BUZZ OFF Insect Shield builds into your clothes a manmade version of a centuries-old insect repellent made from chrysanthemums.”

That kinda sounds like the campy ’70s commercial when the Asian laundry man credits an “ancient Chinese secret” for getting clothes clean, but it turns out to be the detergent additive Calgon.

Chrysanthemums do produce a natural chemical called pyrethrin. You can make it at home by crushing the dried flowers. But BUZZ OFF uses a synthetic pyrethroid called permethrin, which was engineered to be much more toxic than flower power.

Permethrin is a neurotoxin that’s applied as an industrial crop pesticide—and has been sprayed over Fort Collins in previous summers. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the chemical as a possible cancer-causing agent, which is why BUZZ OFF is the first line of clothing ever registered with the government agency. Studies reviewed by the World Health Organization show an increase in lung and liver tumors in mice exposed to permethrin. Further, some experts believe permethrin is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can monkey around with the hormones that cue our growth and development.

An alarming example could be the 30,000 cases of Gulf War Syndrome among soldiers who fought in Iraq the first time around. The illness causes chronic muscle and joint pain, memory loss and general neurological damage. Research from Duke University suggests that Gulf War Syndrome may be linked to the use of permethrin-impregnated clothing in combination with anti-nerve gas drugs and DEET, the most popular toxic bug spray.

“Ancient Chinese secret, huh?”

None of these health risks is on the labels for BUZZ OFF. The tags sewn on the neurotoxin-laden clothing don’t even mention permethrin. The manufacturers do, however, tell consumers to wash BUZZ OFF clothing separate from the rest of the laundry and that its repellent powers wear off after 25 washings. Field data already prove that permethrin from agricultural use builds up in rivers where it’s lethal to the fish and critters that live in the waters.

Government health departments concede that West Nile virus is rare, and most infected people won’t even know they have it. Officials say the peak in transmission occurs the second year after the virus shows up, meaning Colorado and most of the country has already seen the worst of it. Last year, there were fewer than 300 cases and only four deaths in the entire state. Our counties had just 25 cases; everyone survived.

There are plenty of truly natural insect repellents, including citronella, lemongrass and tea tree oil. Public health and consumer groups are pushing for the clothing tags on BUZZ OFF to fully disclose the dangers of permethrin. But as with so many other toxic chemicals, this is probably another experiment where we’ll learn the results the hard way.

And that’s enough to sting us with a really painful dose of paranoia.
Staff reporter Joshua Zaffos uses a combo of lemongrass and B.O. to ward off the skeeters.

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