ENVIRONMENT: TABLE OF CONTENTS

ENVIRONMENT: TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Fire Paradox

Los Angeles Times

Published October 20th, 2002 by Wade Graham

Just beyond the sprawling outskirts of Phoenix, the heat is 111 degrees and the rush-hour traffic shimmers like a mirage. A billboard filled with verdant pine trees beckons: ”Come to the real Arizona.” To the northeast, the landscape climbs from 1,500 feet in the Valley of the Sun to 7,000 feet along the forested Mogollon Rim, a magnet for vacation homes and retirement communities drawn by the promise of trout in cool streams and elk grazing beneath the ponderosa pines.

This day in early summer, the magnet is on fire. A stream of evacuees in pickups and RVs is heading the other way. Soon, flurries of ashes hiss against the windshield, air tankers lumber overhead toward the mountains and a thunderhead of smoke boils up from flames raging through the forest canopy 10 miles away. Arizona is suffering the largest fire in its history.

The blaze, known as the Rodeo-Chediski fire, tops the Mogollon Rim and is racing eastward. Most of the town of Overgaard and parts of Heber are quickly overrun. In the development of Pinecrest Lakes, 166 of 200 double-wide mobile homes are literally vaporized. In Bison Ranch, dozens of faux-log cabins are left twisted and smoking. Undeterred by an army of 4,500 firefighters and a squadron of air tankers, the fire surges outward along a 400-mile perimeter. To the north, it has jumped the highway in several places, making a fast run toward the high desert.

Up ahead, at 8,500 feet in the hamlet of Alpine, potentially in the path of the advancing flames, Arizona State University professor Stephen J. Pyne and his wife, Sonja, are packing up their cabin. The inferno is coming, just as he had long predicted. One of the world’s leading authorities on fire, Pyne has for years advanced the paradoxical prophecy that the greatest threat to America’s forests is not too much fire, but too little. In Pyne’s paradox, without regular, low-intensity wildfires to clear out undergrowth, the landscape will one day explode in devastating firestorms like the one nearby, fires so intense that they obliterate the forests and the creatures within them.

The Pynes’ cabin is a house with rounded wooden siding meant to look like logs, set in a sparse subdivision of similar houses carved into dense forest. Pyne greets me at the door. He is tall and lanky, with an open, bright face and a nearly constant smile. He’s younger looking than his 53 years and more relaxed than might be expected in light of his prodigious scholarly output. So far he has written 14 books, 11 of which compose a panoramic history of the world as seen through the lens of fire–an extraordinary ouevre for which he was awarded a MacArthur ”genius” fellowship in the late 1980s.

Inside, Sonja is carefully packing important items, leaving what they don’t mind losing–which she cheerfully admits includes the house itself if forced to choose between it and the ancient ponderosa pines outside. Pyne is packing too, in between telephone calls from the media. The national press this year is reporting a growing consensus that the ”fire deluge,” as Pyne and others have argued, is the unintended consequence of a century of government policy of putting out fires in the woods. What’s more, Pyne says, our attitudes toward fire ignore the historical reality that man’s role in nature has been to start fires, usually unintentionally, but almost always to healthy effect.

For nearly 100 years, Americans have been at war with wildfire, and we have been enormously successful, cutting U.S. acreage burned by 95%. But fire suppression has left the landscape loaded with fuel in the form of brush and trees. In effect, it has planted bombs in the forests. ”If you take the normal, historical rhythm of fire out, you get these kinds of horrific fires that scour out the landscape,” Pyne says. ”These are of a scale and intensity and size that are just beyond the range of what this forest can adapt to.”

A landscape some distance from the cabin illustrates his point. Under a low, leaden ceiling, a forest of black poles stands in a rolling black landscape punctuated by still-smoking stumps. White flakes of ash as big as autumn snowflakes blow lazily through the air and across the charred crust the soil has become, building low dunes against stumps and filling holes where trees had been. There is a pleasant, sweet smell of burning pine and juniper, exactly like a campfire. Every living thing has been killed, transformed into charcoal. Hiroshima in the pines–luckily with no human victims, though nationally 21 firefighters have already died this season.

Ultimately, the White Mountain Apache reservation, where the Rodeo-Chediski fire started, is the hardest hit. Of the acreage burned, two-thirds is reservation land. Timber is the among the top three sources of income on the reservation, which has 60% unemployment. The fire claimed 12 years of their harvest, worth perhaps $241 million and 400 jobs at the two mills. According to the Forest Service, the forest will take at least 100 years to return to what it was.

The news reports of this fire bring a parade of government officials repeating Pyne’s scenario like a mantra: There is too much fuel in the woods. But beyond that, the discussion quickly dissolves into a cacophony of old arguments, with the same antagonists drawing the same battle lines that have frustrated Pyne for years–environmentalists versus loggers arguing about U.S. forest policy, neither of them seeing the bigger picture.

In this fire season, Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl blames ”radical environmentalists. They would rather the forests burn than to see sensible forest management,” which to him means thinning out the forests by logging and burning the debris left behind.

Arizona Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull, who keeps a second home in Pinetop-Lakeside, rails: ”The policies that are coming from the East Coast, that are coming from the environmentalists, that say we don’t need to log, we don’t need to thin our forests, are absolutely ridiculous. Nobody on the East Coast knows how to manage these fires, and I for one have had it.”

On CNN’s “Crossfire,” conservative co-host Robert Novak taunts Kieran Suckling, director of the Arizona-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity: ”You have created a holocaust, haven’t you?”

Suckling’s reply: ”What’s wrong with these forests is they’ve been managed exclusively for timber industry profits for a hundred years. The old fire-resistant trees have been cut down and shipped to the timber mills and the fires have been suppressed because they were viewed to be dangerous to the timber industry . . . . I’ll tell you what’s happening right now in Arizona. The Forest Service is not focusing its thinning projects around the urban areas that are threatened. Instead, they’re off cutting down old growth trees in the wilderness, 30, 40, 50 miles from the nearest home.”

Pyne has heard it all before. ”I see the same sort of distressing political polarization” as in past seasons, he says. ”Nobody is willing to deal with the fire problem as a fire problem. They want to use it for something else.” That ”something else” is a series of agendas that beg a central question: How can we keep our forests and wildlife healthy?

For the logging lobby, fire is a disaster, eating up a valuable resource, ”standing board feet,” as trees are called. The industry’s approach is to ”go in and cut it out–which doesn’t solve the problem at all,” Pyne says, because it takes the largest trees and leaves behind smaller trees and other highly flammable material.

For the angry politicians, fire is the enemy, threatening the homeland–or at least its second homes. It’s the same view that guided the era of vigorous fire suppression and it leads back to the same precipice, Pyne says.

Environmentalists concede the need for logging and controlled burning to protect communities, but bridle at allowing either in the backcountry. They also see fires set by humans as unnatural. The Sierra Club’s policy is typical: in wilderness, ”fire should be managed primarily by the forces of nature.”

The flaw in that reasoning is a point that underlies much of Pyne’s research. Pyne insists that fire is not, in any useful sense, simply natural. The most common natural source of fire is lightning, but many landscapes in North America see little of it. Instead, for more than 10,000 years, when human hunters first came into North America, many fires, perhaps most of them, were set by people. Even in places with abundant lightning, like Arizona, the forests are also unmistakably shaped by ”anthropogenic” fire, which in Pyne’s lexicon, means fire started by people.

”The issue is that we need to start thinking seriously about is how fire belongs here,” he says. ”And we have to accept that we are the creature that has to make those decisions. It’s our ecological task. Other animals knock over trees, dig holes in the ground, eat plants, but we’re the fire creature, we’re the one creature that does that. It’s not enough to just turn it over to nature. If we can’t get fire right, we might as well resign from the Great Chain of Being, as far as I’m concerned.”

Forests need fires to germinate the seeds of many plants, to cycle nutrients and to create the mosaic of open spaces that underpin diversity. Many animals cannot survive without berries, grasses and other vegetation that flourish in sunny meadows where tall trees have been burned away. In the Banff National Park region of the northern Rocky Mountains, he continues, ”The big, charismatic creatures–bears, bighorn sheep, elk–are all dependent on fire-created landscapes. But there’s almost no lightning-caused fires in there. If we choose to stand aside and let nature do it, we’re going to eliminate all these animals.”

While the squabbling continues, the danger rises. By government estimates, the U.S. needs to reduce fuel on 70 million to 80 million acres; right now it is managing to deal with 2 million acres per year. The record-breaking fire season of 2002 is just one more hot summer in a ratcheting national bonfire. By mid-August, Oregon and Colorado had joined Arizona in suffering the worst fires in their history.

Forests need fires to germinate the seeds of many plants, to cycle nutrients and to create the mosaic of open spaces that underpin diversity. Many animals cannot survive without berries, grasses and other vegetation that flourish in sunny meadows where tall trees have been burned away. In the Banff National Park region of the northern Rocky Mountains, he continues, ”The big, charismatic creatures–bears, bighorn sheep, elk–are all dependent on fire-created landscapes. But there’s almost no lightning-caused fires in there. If we choose to stand aside and let nature do it, we’re going to eliminate all these animals.”

While the squabbling continues, the danger rises. By government estimates, the U.S. needs to reduce fuel on 70 million to 80 million acres; right now it is managing to deal with 2 million acres per year. The record-breaking fire season of 2002 is just one more hot summer in a ratcheting national bonfire. By mid-August, Oregon and Colorado had joined Arizona in suffering the worst fires in their history.

 

The week after his high school graduation in 1967, Pyne went to Grand Canyon National Park to take a job as a summer laborer. Instead he was offered a place on a five-man North Rim fire crew. Eighteen years old, living away from home for the first time, he fell in love in the classic coming-of-age sense: ”We were living on the rim of the Grand Canyon and getting paid for it: clearing the fire roads, cutting the limbs off trees, digging out of the mud,” and hiking all over the backcountry to find the source of smoke reported by lookouts. ”You become very sensitized to the landscape around you, to the things that matter: how the seasons come and where the winds are; to soil; to duff, because that’s where fire persists. You’re going to have to mop it up, you’re going to spend hours, days, at the wrong end of a shovel spading over smoking pine needles.

”It wasn’t just fighting fires, it was also the place. The rituals of your life were defined by the rhythms of fire and the geography of fire and the character of fire, and had there been no fire, there would have been no reason for the Park Service ever to send anybody out there. We got to go where most tourists didn’t. I didn’t ever want to leave.”

Most seasonal firefighters stay for two or three summers. Pyne stayed for 15, between college terms at Stanford University and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. He met Sonja at the North Rim and married her there five years later. (Long-term focus is one of his hallmarks. One summer he ordered pancakes, bacon and cantaloupe for breakfast 105 mornings in a row.)

With his PhD in hand but without an academic post in the lean job market of the late 1970s, still supporting himself as a seasonal firefighter, Pyne decided as a last gambit to combine his love of fire with history. The resulting book, ”Fire in America,” published in 1982, became an instant classic in the new field of environmental history and won him the MacArthur in 1988. The award funded a five-year peregrination to all five continents, where he did the research that underpins his five-volume ”Cycle of Fire,” the fire histories of America, Australia, the World, Antarctica (a place distinguished by the absence of fire), and what is acknowledged to be his masterpiece, ”Vestal Fire,” a fire history of Europe and European colonialism, published in 1997. His most recent book, “Year of the Fires,” while not part of the MacArthur series, touches on familiar territory in addressing government policy on firefighting before and after the year 1910, when a wave of wildfires threatened to consume the Western United States.

By ”treating fire as a larger cultural force,” putting it at the center of the narrative, Pyne has uncovered an analytical tool of surprising scope and power. In his work, fire is paradoxically both natural and cultural, acting like a Promethean ur-species, sometimes competing with, sometimes domesticated by, people. Nature gave us fire in the form of lightning, and we took it and altered it, making it the fire in the hearth of civilization and the engine that, by clearing land, helped create agriculture and allow its expansion into inhospitable zones. It is embedded in every society and landscape–as the biology of every continent except Antarctica has been, to some extent, fashioned by human fire use. In Australia, for example, Pyne argues convincingly that fire-stick-wielding aborigines literally created the landscape by favoring the fire-loving eucalyptus over other species.

Arizona is no exception. It has the highest incidence of fire caused by lightning in America and a long history of human occupation. Nowhere is this combination more keenly felt than in the ponderosa pinelands, where periodic fires fed by thick grasses left larger trees standing but cleaned out smaller trees and brush. Burned often enough, ponderosa forests can be largely fireproof. But when Euro-American settlement began 150 years ago, overgrazing soon stripped the grasses and bouts of logging cut out the old growth trees. Firefighting, believed to protect the resource, instead eliminated the janitor. Smaller trees grew into dense thickets, transpiring scarce water through their leaves so that springs and creeks dried up.

Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona governor and Interior Department secretary, says that when he was growing up, he could look out from his bedroom window in Flagstaff at the San Francisco Peaks, the 12,600-foot dormant volcano that looms over the city, ”and watch the change of the seasons across the mountain. You could see all these large parks, which were obviously originally cleared by fire, and across the years you could see them gradually closing in. In the area where we used to go skiing, you could actually watch the aspen forests, fire-generated, disappear, crowded out by fir trees.”

At the peak of the Rodeo-Chediski fire, I leave the Pynes to their packing and drive to Show Low, a town of 7,700 named for the Wild West card game by which a ranchhand won the land, now evacuated and serving as the base for the firefighting effort. I’m looking for Jim Paxon, a district ranger in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico and Forest Service spokesman on the fire.

It is eerily calm. Police cruisers and military units in Humvees patrol empty streets under a milky orange sun filtered through a light fall of ash. On the playing fields at the high school, swarms of blue crew tents are massed like jellyfish in a green sea. Parking lots stretching two blocks are jammed with TV satellite trucks. Five times daily, Paxon appears before TV cameras to announce the numbers of acres burned, of homes ”saved” and of those afforded no salvation. A Texan with a thick mustache and a laconic drawl, Paxon is the very definition of a grizzled veteran: since 1969, he has worked on some of the biggest wildfires in American history, and has seen the bodies of scores of firefighters taken out of the mountains.

”I’m a prescribed burner,” he tells me. ”Some of my own peers call me a pyromaniac. I burned 86,000 acres in the last four years in my little bitty district”–the Black Range, 560,000 acres of ponderosa and pinyon-juniper pine woodlands within the national forest. He can quantify the results: ”Where I’ve burned, I’ve got creeks that have been dry for 15, 20 years that are flowing water year round now.” Some areas of pinyon-juniper forest that have been thinned are yielding about 700 pounds per acre of grass, he says. “I can show you a biological desert, where there’s 400 juniper trees an acre, and you’re getting 200 pounds of forage [grass] an acre. I can show you where we burned and there’s 1,200 pounds.

”I take some of these old ranchers, in their 70s and 80s, and I walk ’em through blue grama grass that’s brushing their crotch, and they’ve never seen that.”

Paxon is the first to admit that his is a rare situation. His district is mostly wilderness in a near-empty quarter of a sparsely populated state, 50 miles from the closest thing to a city–Truth or Consequences, N.M., named after the game show. Successes like this do not constitute a nationwide model.

Paxon was also lead information officer on the May 2000 ”Los Alamos” fire in New Mexico, a prescribed fire at Bandelier National Monument that turned out of its intended track and blew toward the town of Los Alamos and the nearby national laboratory, where nuclear materials are kept. Conditions in Upper Frijoles Canyon, the target of the fuel-reduction burn, were probably too moist for burning, according to Pyne’s post mortem, while conditions in the ponderosas around Los Alamos were superb for a firestorm.

In spite of intensive firefighting efforts, the blaze was unstoppable, burning 42,849 acres, 235 homes and part of the lab itself. In its wake, prescribed burning fell under a cloud of smoke. Its record is, on the whole, good: In the last few decades, less than 3% of controlled burns have become uncontrollable–exactly the same percentage as the number of unintentional wildfires that defeat suppression efforts. But the exceptions make the perception. Some of the worst fires of the past 20 years have been escapes, Pyne says. Seven have killed firefighters; one burned a small town in Michigan to the ground.

Burning remains an art, not a science–one with innumerable variables that must line up for success, and a steep price for failure. Of those prescribed burns that are attempted, many end in failure–fizzling out, going the wrong way when the wind shifts or just not burning hot enough, singeing trees enough to kill them but not fell them, leaving standing deadwood that is more flammable than live trees. The burning also creates smoke, which few people associate with a wholesome weekend in the mountains.

”Urban people,” Pyne says, ”the only fire they see is a disaster–the car is burning, there was an accident, the house is burning, they see it on TV, it’s a crisis.” In their cabins in the pines, they can’t see the ”large fuels,” in firefighter parlance, for the trees. It’s tough to get them to cut down the trees that brush against their wood-shake roofs; it’s even harder to persuade them to welcome prescribed fire into the nearby woods.

Burning programs nationwide are routinely stifled by complaints about drifting smoke. The White Mountain Apache tribe, historically among the most aggressive controlled burners in the country, has seen its program severely curtailed when smoke sinks down into smog-choked Phoenix, pushing it into violation of clean-air statutes. In 1996, a fire closed Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport for three days to all but instrument landings.

Against that backdrop, advocates of prescribed burning have had to give ground to those who see a greater role for chainsaws in bringing the forests back into balance.

The nation unquestionably needs to find a way to put fire back into the landscape, on a huge scale. But how? It’s a riddle Pyne has struggled with for most of his career.

Back at the Pynes’ cabin, I ask if burning alone can restore the tangled ponderosa forest in which the house sits. ”No,” he replies. ”And I say that reluctantly. Twenty years ago, I would have said, ‘Yeah we took fire out, now what we need to do is just put it back in.’ But I think we’ve learned to our pain that it is not a reversible process. You can’t put fire back in the same way you took it out. It turns out to be very complicated. It’s like introducing a lost species: you can’t take wolves and dump them into Arrowhead Mall and expect that they’re going to behave as they would have 200 years ago. You can’t dump fire into some of these landscapes and expect that fire is going to dissolve all the ills out there.”

There is consensus that forest ”treatment” must involve a combination of cutting and burning. Smaller trees would be cut down and, along with other debris from the forest floor, either ground up or burned after the snow falls. In a given forest, the process might have to be repeated, and it might take several years.

Pyne cautions against any universal prescription. ”Right now it’s all slashing and burning, it’s all shoving biomass around, it’s all an engineering problem: we take out so much fuel, we kindle so many fires, or we suppress so many.”

Instead, the recipe must be tailored to the habitat. What works in a ponderosa pine forest won’t apply to a coastal Douglas fir forest, a lodgepole pine forest, a pinyon-juniper forest or chaparral. It will differ on north-facing slopes and south-facing slopes. And, to top Pyne’s paradox with another, he points out that, in some high-altitude forests, periodic ”stand-replacing” fires that strip away every living thing are ecologically normal and necessary. Thinning would only deprive them of the fuel they require.

”We’re talking about boutique burning,” Pyne says. ”Site specific, knowledge-intensive, time-intensive, and hugely expensive.”

The greatest barrier to free-burning fire is the growing phalanx of homes being built in fire-prone environments. Houses in the woods form the most bitterly contended front in the fire wars: the ”wildland/urban interface.” Now resources have to be committed to saving structures, at great cost and risk to firefighters trained and equipped to fight for territory, not lives or property. ”Suddenly the firefighter is even more compromised. Do you save the houses or the trees?” Pyne asks.

Perhaps fires like those this season will spur a keener awareness of the risks of building in fire-prone regions, and changes in attitudes and legal and financial incentives will follow. As Babbitt says, ”Living in the forest is dangerous, and ironically, in most of these areas there are no building codes at all. The governor and all the politicians are busy blaming everybody, but they seem to be unable to turn to the communities themselves and say, ‘You have a responsibility, and it’s about time to enact some building codes and to take some simple precautions.’ We still haven’t learned that lesson.”

Even in Los Alamos, Paxon says, people still resist providing buffer zones between the forest and their homes. Within four months of the fires there, some homeowners sought permission to build to within five feet of the national forest boundary. The existing setback was 15 feet. The city denied the request. The fire had burned 20% of Los Alamos, Paxon notes, yet among those in the other 80% were people who thought: “It’ll never happen to me.See, the big fire’s already come.”

In California, an explosive hillside intermix is a traditional form of urbanism, and it has shown a discouraging pattern. When a neighborhood burns in Malibu or Berkeley, the owners rebuild, generally with insurance and disaster relief money, building bigger and more expensive houses. Property values rise, the area becomes more desirable, and more houses are built even higher on the slopes. Eventually, another fire torches the neighborhood, and the insurance and relief payments, being larger, cover the cost of rebuilding even bigger structures, and so on. So far, no limit to this perverse cycle has been reached.

The federal land management agencies spent their entire fire-suppression budgets this year by mid-July. The Forest Service drained half of its reserve on just five fires. To continue the effort through the fire season, the agencies will have to ask for at least $1 billion in emergency appropriations–money the White House is loath to grant during a budget crunch and an election year, but which influential members of Congress are loath to deny constituents.

After the disastrous 2000 season, the Clinton administration secured passage of the National Fire Plan, with $2 billion in funding for mitigation efforts, including fuel reduction. To date, fewer than half of the national forest fire plans required by the legislation have been prepared–hence, little progress has been made. The money is regarded as just a down payment on a fuel-reduction bill that is expected to reach $12 billion over a decade.

By the end of August, the national burn tally exceeded 6.2 million acres–double the mark last summer, surpassing the year-to-date burn tally for the devastating 2000 fire season, the worst ever recorded. Various governments spent $1.6 billion fighting those fires, calling out 30,000 firefighters.

Pointing to these numbers, the Bush administration is pushing Congress to exempt 10 million acres from environmental laws to clear the way for “treatment”–mostly by for-profit logging, not burning. Environmentalists counter that the White House is using the fires as a smoke screen for letting loggers back into the wilderness, setting back decades of environmental gains.

Pyne is not optimistic. ”You’re going to see some change around the houses. Congress is tired of having houses burning on TV,” he says. Some national parks and monuments will have a form of preventive treatment, including prescribed fires. But the vast expanses of generic public lands, the 50% of the West owned by federal agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, remain in danger of catastrophic fires and, in their wake, cascading biological shifts that no one can predict.

”It’s hard to justify billions of dollars and years and years of effort to try and prevent it from burning under extreme conditions,” Pyne says. ”The likely scenario is they’d rather spend $12 billion on prescription drugs. We’ve just put them aside until we tackle those other issues, but fire isn’t waiting and fire is going to chew those lands up.”

Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire eventually destroyed 467 structures and blackened 468,638 acres. Its eastward advance, toward the Pynes’ cabin, was stopped by an Apache fire crew working day and night in a last-ditch effort along a fire line that had been cleared two years before in a controlled burn. The earlier fire had successfully removed enough undergrowth and small trees that the new fire was deprived of fuel. When it hit the line, the inferno ”just lay down and died,” says Rick Lupe, a 24-year firefighting veteran and head of the Apache crew. The Pynes’ cabin was spared.

The same thing happened to Colorado’s Hayman fire. After joining with the Arizona fire, it, too, ran into a previous prescribed burn and died.

The lessons seemed clear.

As I left the cabin, Sonja gave me two gifts: a bag of cookies and a sack of ponderosa pine cones she had soaked in paraffin to make foolproof firestarters for the fireplace.

THE GRASS MAN

Published August 19th, 1996 in The New Yorker

THE FIRE PARADOX: BURN IT TO SAVE IT

Published October 20th, 2002 by Wade Graham

Just beyond the sprawling outskirts of Phoenix, the heat is 111 degrees and the rush-hour traffic shimmers like a mirage. A billboard filled with verdant pine trees beckons: ”Come to the real Arizona.” To the northeast, the landscape climbs from 1,500 feet in the Valley of the Sun to 7,000 feet along the forested Mogollon Rim, a magnet for vacation homes and retirement communities drawn by the promise of trout in cool streams and elk grazing beneath the ponderosa pines.

This day in early summer, the magnet is on fire. A stream of evacuees in pickups and RVs is heading the other way. Soon, flurries of ashes hiss against the windshield, air tankers lumber overhead toward the mountains and a thunderhead of smoke boils up from flames raging through the forest canopy 10 miles away. Arizona is suffering the largest fire in its history.

The blaze, known as the Rodeo-Chediski fire, tops the Mogollon Rim and is racing eastward. Most of the town of Overgaard and parts of Heber are quickly overrun. In the development of Pinecrest Lakes, 166 of 200 double-wide mobile homes are literally vaporized. In Bison Ranch, dozens of faux-log cabins are left twisted and smoking. Undeterred by an army of 4,500 firefighters and a squadron of air tankers, the fire surges outward along a 400-mile perimeter. To the north, it has jumped the highway in several places, making a fast run toward the high desert.

Up ahead, at 8,500 feet in the hamlet of Alpine, potentially in the path of the advancing flames, Arizona State University professor Stephen J. Pyne and his wife, Sonja, are packing up their cabin. The inferno is coming, just as he had long predicted. One of the world’s leading authorities on fire, Pyne has for years advanced the paradoxical prophecy that the greatest threat to America’s forests is not too much fire, but too little. In Pyne’s paradox, without regular, low-intensity wildfires to clear out undergrowth, the landscape will one day explode in devastating firestorms like the one nearby, fires so intense that they obliterate the forests and the creatures within them.

The Pynes’ cabin is a house with rounded wooden siding meant to look like logs, set in a sparse subdivision of similar houses carved into dense forest. Pyne greets me at the door. He is tall and lanky, with an open, bright face and a nearly constant smile. He’s younger looking than his 53 years and more relaxed than might be expected in light of his prodigious scholarly output. So far he has written 14 books, 11 of which compose a panoramic history of the world as seen through the lens of fire–an extraordinary ouevre for which he was awarded a MacArthur ”genius” fellowship in the late 1980s.

Inside, Sonja is carefully packing important items, leaving what they don’t mind losing–which she cheerfully admits includes the house itself if forced to choose between it and the ancient ponderosa pines outside. Pyne is packing too, in between telephone calls from the media. The national press this year is reporting a growing consensus that the ”fire deluge,” as Pyne and others have argued, is the unintended consequence of a century of government policy of putting out fires in the woods. What’s more, Pyne says, our attitudes toward fire ignore the historical reality that man’s role in nature has been to start fires, usually unintentionally, but almost always to healthy effect.

For nearly 100 years, Americans have been at war with wildfire, and we have been enormously successful, cutting U.S. acreage burned by 95%. But fire suppression has left the landscape loaded with fuel in the form of brush and trees. In effect, it has planted bombs in the forests. ”If you take the normal, historical rhythm of fire out, you get these kinds of horrific fires that scour out the landscape,” Pyne says. ”These are of a scale and intensity and size that are just beyond the range of what this forest can adapt to.”

A landscape some distance from the cabin illustrates his point. Under a low, leaden ceiling, a forest of black poles stands in a rolling black landscape punctuated by still-smoking stumps. White flakes of ash as big as autumn snowflakes blow lazily through the air and across the charred crust the soil has become, building low dunes against stumps and filling holes where trees had been. There is a pleasant, sweet smell of burning pine and juniper, exactly like a campfire. Every living thing has been killed, transformed into charcoal. Hiroshima in the pines–luckily with no human victims, though nationally 21 firefighters have already died this season.

Ultimately, the White Mountain Apache reservation, where the Rodeo-Chediski fire started, is the hardest hit. Of the acreage burned, two-thirds is reservation land. Timber is the among the top three sources of income on the reservation, which has 60% unemployment. The fire claimed 12 years of their harvest, worth perhaps $241 million and 400 jobs at the two mills. According to the Forest Service, the forest will take at least 100 years to return to what it was.

The news reports of this fire bring a parade of government officials repeating Pyne’s scenario like a mantra: There is too much fuel in the woods. But beyond that, the discussion quickly dissolves into a cacophony of old arguments, with the same antagonists drawing the same battle lines that have frustrated Pyne for years–environmentalists versus loggers arguing about U.S. forest policy, neither of them seeing the bigger picture.

In this fire season, Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl blames ”radical environmentalists. They would rather the forests burn than to see sensible forest management,” which to him means thinning out the forests by logging and burning the debris left behind.

Arizona Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull, who keeps a second home in Pinetop-Lakeside, rails: ”The policies that are coming from the East Coast, that are coming from the environmentalists, that say we don’t need to log, we don’t need to thin our forests, are absolutely ridiculous. Nobody on the East Coast knows how to manage these fires, and I for one have had it.”

On CNN’s “Crossfire,” conservative co-host Robert Novak taunts Kieran Suckling, director of the Arizona-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity: ”You have created a holocaust, haven’t you?”

Suckling’s reply: ”What’s wrong with these forests is they’ve been managed exclusively for timber industry profits for a hundred years. The old fire-resistant trees have been cut down and shipped to the timber mills and the fires have been suppressed because they were viewed to be dangerous to the timber industry . . . . I’ll tell you what’s happening right now in Arizona. The Forest Service is not focusing its thinning projects around the urban areas that are threatened. Instead, they’re off cutting down old growth trees in the wilderness, 30, 40, 50 miles from the nearest home.”

Pyne has heard it all before. ”I see the same sort of distressing political polarization” as in past seasons, he says. ”Nobody is willing to deal with the fire problem as a fire problem. They want to use it for something else.” That ”something else” is a series of agendas that beg a central question: How can we keep our forests and wildlife healthy?

For the logging lobby, fire is a disaster, eating up a valuable resource, ”standing board feet,” as trees are called. The industry’s approach is to ”go in and cut it out–which doesn’t solve the problem at all,” Pyne says, because it takes the largest trees and leaves behind smaller trees and other highly flammable material.

For the angry politicians, fire is the enemy, threatening the homeland–or at least its second homes. It’s the same view that guided the era of vigorous fire suppression and it leads back to the same precipice, Pyne says.

Environmentalists concede the need for logging and controlled burning to protect communities, but bridle at allowing either in the backcountry. They also see fires set by humans as unnatural. The Sierra Club’s policy is typical: in wilderness, ”fire should be managed primarily by the forces of nature.”

The flaw in that reasoning is a point that underlies much of Pyne’s research. Pyne insists that fire is not, in any useful sense, simply natural. The most common natural source of fire is lightning, but many landscapes in North America see little of it. Instead, for more than 10,000 years, when human hunters first came into North America, many fires, perhaps most of them, were set by people. Even in places with abundant lightning, like Arizona, the forests are also unmistakably shaped by ”anthropogenic” fire, which in Pyne’s lexicon, means fire started by people.

”The issue is that we need to start thinking seriously about is how fire belongs here,” he says. ”And we have to accept that we are the creature that has to make those decisions. It’s our ecological task. Other animals knock over trees, dig holes in the ground, eat plants, but we’re the fire creature, we’re the one creature that does that. It’s not enough to just turn it over to nature. If we can’t get fire right, we might as well resign from the Great Chain of Being, as far as I’m concerned.”

Forests need fires to germinate the seeds of many plants, to cycle nutrients and to create the mosaic of open spaces that underpin diversity. Many animals cannot survive without berries, grasses and other vegetation that flourish in sunny meadows where tall trees have been burned away. In the Banff National Park region of the northern Rocky Mountains, he continues, ”The big, charismatic creatures–bears, bighorn sheep, elk–are all dependent on fire-created landscapes. But there’s almost no lightning-caused fires in there. If we choose to stand aside and let nature do it, we’re going to eliminate all these animals.”

While the squabbling continues, the danger rises. By government estimates, the U.S. needs to reduce fuel on 70 million to 80 million acres; right now it is managing to deal with 2 million acres per year. The record-breaking fire season of 2002 is just one more hot summer in a ratcheting national bonfire. By mid-August, Oregon and Colorado had joined Arizona in suffering the worst fires in their history.

Forests need fires to germinate the seeds of many plants, to cycle nutrients and to create the mosaic of open spaces that underpin diversity. Many animals cannot survive without berries, grasses and other vegetation that flourish in sunny meadows where tall trees have been burned away. In the Banff National Park region of the northern Rocky Mountains, he continues, ”The big, charismatic creatures–bears, bighorn sheep, elk–are all dependent on fire-created landscapes. But there’s almost no lightning-caused fires in there. If we choose to stand aside and let nature do it, we’re going to eliminate all these animals.”

While the squabbling continues, the danger rises. By government estimates, the U.S. needs to reduce fuel on 70 million to 80 million acres; right now it is managing to deal with 2 million acres per year. The record-breaking fire season of 2002 is just one more hot summer in a ratcheting national bonfire. By mid-August, Oregon and Colorado had joined Arizona in suffering the worst fires in their history.

The week after his high school graduation in 1967, Pyne went to Grand Canyon National Park to take a job as a summer laborer. Instead he was offered a place on a five-man North Rim fire crew. Eighteen years old, living away from home for the first time, he fell in love in the classic coming-of-age sense: ”We were living on the rim of the Grand Canyon and getting paid for it: clearing the fire roads, cutting the limbs off trees, digging out of the mud,” and hiking all over the backcountry to find the source of smoke reported by lookouts. ”You become very sensitized to the landscape around you, to the things that matter: how the seasons come and where the winds are; to soil; to duff, because that’s where fire persists. You’re going to have to mop it up, you’re going to spend hours, days, at the wrong end of a shovel spading over smoking pine needles.

”It wasn’t just fighting fires, it was also the place. The rituals of your life were defined by the rhythms of fire and the geography of fire and the character of fire, and had there been no fire, there would have been no reason for the Park Service ever to send anybody out there. We got to go where most tourists didn’t. I didn’t ever want to leave.”

Most seasonal firefighters stay for two or three summers. Pyne stayed for 15, between college terms at Stanford University and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. He met Sonja at the North Rim and married her there five years later. (Long-term focus is one of his hallmarks. One summer he ordered pancakes, bacon and cantaloupe for breakfast 105 mornings in a row.)

With his PhD in hand but without an academic post in the lean job market of the late 1970s, still supporting himself as a seasonal firefighter, Pyne decided as a last gambit to combine his love of fire with history. The resulting book, ”Fire in America,” published in 1982, became an instant classic in the new field of environmental history and won him the MacArthur in 1988. The award funded a five-year peregrination to all five continents, where he did the research that underpins his five-volume ”Cycle of Fire,” the fire histories of America, Australia, the World, Antarctica (a place distinguished by the absence of fire), and what is acknowledged to be his masterpiece, ”Vestal Fire,” a fire history of Europe and European colonialism, published in 1997. His most recent book, “Year of the Fires,” while not part of the MacArthur series, touches on familiar territory in addressing government policy on firefighting before and after the year 1910, when a wave of wildfires threatened to consume the Western United States.

By ”treating fire as a larger cultural force,” putting it at the center of the narrative, Pyne has uncovered an analytical tool of surprising scope and power. In his work, fire is paradoxically both natural and cultural, acting like a Promethean ur-species, sometimes competing with, sometimes domesticated by, people. Nature gave us fire in the form of lightning, and we took it and altered it, making it the fire in the hearth of civilization and the engine that, by clearing land, helped create agriculture and allow its expansion into inhospitable zones. It is embedded in every society and landscape–as the biology of every continent except Antarctica has been, to some extent, fashioned by human fire use. In Australia, for example, Pyne argues convincingly that fire-stick-wielding aborigines literally created the landscape by favoring the fire-loving eucalyptus over other species.

Arizona is no exception. It has the highest incidence of fire caused by lightning in America and a long history of human occupation. Nowhere is this combination more keenly felt than in the ponderosa pinelands, where periodic fires fed by thick grasses left larger trees standing but cleaned out smaller trees and brush. Burned often enough, ponderosa forests can be largely fireproof. But when Euro-American settlement began 150 years ago, overgrazing soon stripped the grasses and bouts of logging cut out the old growth trees. Firefighting, believed to protect the resource, instead eliminated the janitor. Smaller trees grew into dense thickets, transpiring scarce water through their leaves so that springs and creeks dried up.

Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona governor and Interior Department secretary, says that when he was growing up, he could look out from his bedroom window in Flagstaff at the San Francisco Peaks, the 12,600-foot dormant volcano that looms over the city, ”and watch the change of the seasons across the mountain. You could see all these large parks, which were obviously originally cleared by fire, and across the years you could see them gradually closing in. In the area where we used to go skiing, you could actually watch the aspen forests, fire-generated, disappear, crowded out by fir trees.”

At the peak of the Rodeo-Chediski fire, I leave the Pynes to their packing and drive to Show Low, a town of 7,700 named for the Wild West card game by which a ranchhand won the land, now evacuated and serving as the base for the firefighting effort. I’m looking for Jim Paxon, a district ranger in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico and Forest Service spokesman on the fire.

It is eerily calm. Police cruisers and military units in Humvees patrol empty streets under a milky orange sun filtered through a light fall of ash. On the playing fields at the high school, swarms of blue crew tents are massed like jellyfish in a green sea. Parking lots stretching two blocks are jammed with TV satellite trucks. Five times daily, Paxon appears before TV cameras to announce the numbers of acres burned, of homes ”saved” and of those afforded no salvation. A Texan with a thick mustache and a laconic drawl, Paxon is the very definition of a grizzled veteran: since 1969, he has worked on some of the biggest wildfires in American history, and has seen the bodies of scores of firefighters taken out of the mountains.

”I’m a prescribed burner,” he tells me. ”Some of my own peers call me a pyromaniac. I burned 86,000 acres in the last four years in my little bitty district”–the Black Range, 560,000 acres of ponderosa and pinyon-juniper pine woodlands within the national forest. He can quantify the results: ”Where I’ve burned, I’ve got creeks that have been dry for 15, 20 years that are flowing water year round now.” Some areas of pinyon-juniper forest that have been thinned are yielding about 700 pounds per acre of grass, he says. “I can show you a biological desert, where there’s 400 juniper trees an acre, and you’re getting 200 pounds of forage [grass] an acre. I can show you where we burned and there’s 1,200 pounds.

”I take some of these old ranchers, in their 70s and 80s, and I walk ’em through blue grama grass that’s brushing their crotch, and they’ve never seen that.”

Paxon is the first to admit that his is a rare situation. His district is mostly wilderness in a near-empty quarter of a sparsely populated state, 50 miles from the closest thing to a city–Truth or Consequences, N.M., named after the game show. Successes like this do not constitute a nationwide model.

Paxon was also lead information officer on the May 2000 ”Los Alamos” fire in New Mexico, a prescribed fire at Bandelier National Monument that turned out of its intended track and blew toward the town of Los Alamos and the nearby national laboratory, where nuclear materials are kept. Conditions in Upper Frijoles Canyon, the target of the fuel-reduction burn, were probably too moist for burning, according to Pyne’s post mortem, while conditions in the ponderosas around Los Alamos were superb for a firestorm.

In spite of intensive firefighting efforts, the blaze was unstoppable, burning 42,849 acres, 235 homes and part of the lab itself. In its wake, prescribed burning fell under a cloud of smoke. Its record is, on the whole, good: In the last few decades, less than 3% of controlled burns have become uncontrollable–exactly the same percentage as the number of unintentional wildfires that defeat suppression efforts. But the exceptions make the perception. Some of the worst fires of the past 20 years have been escapes, Pyne says. Seven have killed firefighters; one burned a small town in Michigan to the ground.

Burning remains an art, not a science–one with innumerable variables that must line up for success, and a steep price for failure. Of those prescribed burns that are attempted, many end in failure–fizzling out, going the wrong way when the wind shifts or just not burning hot enough, singeing trees enough to kill them but not fell them, leaving standing deadwood that is more flammable than live trees. The burning also creates smoke, which few people associate with a wholesome weekend in the mountains.

”Urban people,” Pyne says, ”the only fire they see is a disaster–the car is burning, there was an accident, the house is burning, they see it on TV, it’s a crisis.” In their cabins in the pines, they can’t see the ”large fuels,” in firefighter parlance, for the trees. It’s tough to get them to cut down the trees that brush against their wood-shake roofs; it’s even harder to persuade them to welcome prescribed fire into the nearby woods.

Burning programs nationwide are routinely stifled by complaints about drifting smoke. The White Mountain Apache tribe, historically among the most aggressive controlled burners in the country, has seen its program severely curtailed when smoke sinks down into smog-choked Phoenix, pushing it into violation of clean-air statutes. In 1996, a fire closed Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport for three days to all but instrument landings.

Against that backdrop, advocates of prescribed burning have had to give ground to those who see a greater role for chainsaws in bringing the forests back into balance.

The nation unquestionably needs to find a way to put fire back into the landscape, on a huge scale. But how? It’s a riddle Pyne has struggled with for most of his career.

Back at the Pynes’ cabin, I ask if burning alone can restore the tangled ponderosa forest in which the house sits. ”No,” he replies. ”And I say that reluctantly. Twenty years ago, I would have said, ‘Yeah we took fire out, now what we need to do is just put it back in.’ But I think we’ve learned to our pain that it is not a reversible process. You can’t put fire back in the same way you took it out. It turns out to be very complicated. It’s like introducing a lost species: you can’t take wolves and dump them into Arrowhead Mall and expect that they’re going to behave as they would have 200 years ago. You can’t dump fire into some of these landscapes and expect that fire is going to dissolve all the ills out there.”

There is consensus that forest ”treatment” must involve a combination of cutting and burning. Smaller trees would be cut down and, along with other debris from the forest floor, either ground up or burned after the snow falls. In a given forest, the process might have to be repeated, and it might take several years.

Pyne cautions against any universal prescription. ”Right now it’s all slashing and burning, it’s all shoving biomass around, it’s all an engineering problem: we take out so much fuel, we kindle so many fires, or we suppress so many.”

Instead, the recipe must be tailored to the habitat. What works in a ponderosa pine forest won’t apply to a coastal Douglas fir forest, a lodgepole pine forest, a pinyon-juniper forest or chaparral. It will differ on north-facing slopes and south-facing slopes. And, to top Pyne’s paradox with another, he points out that, in some high-altitude forests, periodic ”stand-replacing” fires that strip away every living thing are ecologically normal and necessary. Thinning would only deprive them of the fuel they require.

”We’re talking about boutique burning,” Pyne says. ”Site specific, knowledge-intensive, time-intensive, and hugely expensive.”

The greatest barrier to free-burning fire is the growing phalanx of homes being built in fire-prone environments. Houses in the woods form the most bitterly contended front in the fire wars: the ”wildland/urban interface.” Now resources have to be committed to saving structures, at great cost and risk to firefighters trained and equipped to fight for territory, not lives or property. ”Suddenly the firefighter is even more compromised. Do you save the houses or the trees?” Pyne asks.

Perhaps fires like those this season will spur a keener awareness of the risks of building in fire-prone regions, and changes in attitudes and legal and financial incentives will follow. As Babbitt says, ”Living in the forest is dangerous, and ironically, in most of these areas there are no building codes at all. The governor and all the politicians are busy blaming everybody, but they seem to be unable to turn to the communities themselves and say, ‘You have a responsibility, and it’s about time to enact some building codes and to take some simple precautions.’ We still haven’t learned that lesson.”

Even in Los Alamos, Paxon says, people still resist providing buffer zones between the forest and their homes. Within four months of the fires there, some homeowners sought permission to build to within five feet of the national forest boundary. The existing setback was 15 feet. The city denied the request. The fire had burned 20% of Los Alamos, Paxon notes, yet among those in the other 80% were people who thought: “It’ll never happen to me.See, the big fire’s already come.”

In California, an explosive hillside intermix is a traditional form of urbanism, and it has shown a discouraging pattern. When a neighborhood burns in Malibu or Berkeley, the owners rebuild, generally with insurance and disaster relief money, building bigger and more expensive houses. Property values rise, the area becomes more desirable, and more houses are built even higher on the slopes. Eventually, another fire torches the neighborhood, and the insurance and relief payments, being larger, cover the cost of rebuilding even bigger structures, and so on. So far, no limit to this perverse cycle has been reached.

The federal land management agencies spent their entire fire-suppression budgets this year by mid-July. The Forest Service drained half of its reserve on just five fires. To continue the effort through the fire season, the agencies will have to ask for at least $1 billion in emergency appropriations–money the White House is loath to grant during a budget crunch and an election year, but which influential members of Congress are loath to deny constituents.

After the disastrous 2000 season, the Clinton administration secured passage of the National Fire Plan, with $2 billion in funding for mitigation efforts, including fuel reduction. To date, fewer than half of the national forest fire plans required by the legislation have been prepared–hence, little progress has been made. The money is regarded as just a down payment on a fuel-reduction bill that is expected to reach $12 billion over a decade.

By the end of August, the national burn tally exceeded 6.2 million acres–double the mark last summer, surpassing the year-to-date burn tally for the devastating 2000 fire season, the worst ever recorded. Various governments spent $1.6 billion fighting those fires, calling out 30,000 firefighters.

Pointing to these numbers, the Bush administration is pushing Congress to exempt 10 million acres from environmental laws to clear the way for “treatment”–mostly by for-profit logging, not burning. Environmentalists counter that the White House is using the fires as a smoke screen for letting loggers back into the wilderness, setting back decades of environmental gains.

Pyne is not optimistic. ”You’re going to see some change around the houses. Congress is tired of having houses burning on TV,” he says. Some national parks and monuments will have a form of preventive treatment, including prescribed fires. But the vast expanses of generic public lands, the 50% of the West owned by federal agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, remain in danger of catastrophic fires and, in their wake, cascading biological shifts that no one can predict.

”It’s hard to justify billions of dollars and years and years of effort to try and prevent it from burning under extreme conditions,” Pyne says. ”The likely scenario is they’d rather spend $12 billion on prescription drugs. We’ve just put them aside until we tackle those other issues, but fire isn’t waiting and fire is going to chew those lands up.”

Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire eventually destroyed 467 structures and blackened 468,638 acres. Its eastward advance, toward the Pynes’ cabin, was stopped by an Apache fire crew working day and night in a last-ditch effort along a fire line that had been cleared two years before in a controlled burn. The earlier fire had successfully removed enough undergrowth and small trees that the new fire was deprived of fuel. When it hit the line, the inferno ”just lay down and died,” says Rick Lupe, a 24-year firefighting veteran and head of the Apache crew. The Pynes’ cabin was spared.

The same thing happened to Colorado’s Hayman fire. After joining with the Arizona fire, it, too, ran into a previous prescribed burn and died.

The lessons seemed clear.

As I left the cabin, Sonja gave me two gifts: a bag of cookies and a sack of ponderosa pine cones she had soaked in paraffin to make foolproof firestarters for the fireplace.

GETTING TO KNOW THE VOLCANO

FAR-FLUNG CORRESPONDENTS about the Caribbean island of Montserrat, and volcanic activity there… The sound of the first rockfall was almost faint, like billiard balls cracking together. Next came what could have been the roar of a freight train–so close that it seemed that at any moment the speeding avalanche of rock, superheated gas, and ash would vomit out of the mist to engulf us…. Volcanoes, in direct proportion to their deadliness, seem to attract tourists of a particularly foolhardy sort. Pliny the Elder, who was perhaps the most celebrated of them, suffocated in the eruption of Italy’s Vesuvius in A.D. 79–killed by curiosity… I had come to the thirty-nine-and-a-half-square-mile British dependent territory of Montserrat to see the Soufriere Hills volcano, which, on July 18,1995, had waked up from a four-hundred-year nap… Writer accompanies guide George Skerritt to take microgravity measurements… The island is revered as a nerve center of the international calypso scene and also as the home of the Beatles producer George Martin’s AIR Studios, a recording facility popular with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett and Sting… After the eruption began in 1995, an international team of scientists, from Trinidad’s Seismic Research Unit, the United States Geological Survey, and the British Geological Survey, arrived to advise it during the crisis… At the twenty-four-hour monitoring facility, in a vacation villa. Dr. Rick Hoblitt, a visiting U.S.G.S. volcanologist, explained that Soufriere Hills had been steadily building a potentially dangerous lava dome which increased the danger of a sudden violent explosion and a massive pyroclastic flow… In the course of evacuations, some eight thousand Montserratians have been displaced. More than three thousand have left the island entirely… Three times daily, between calypso tunes, activity reports from the observatory are read over the government’s radio station, to which people listen avidly… Despite their precarious situation, the Montserratians I met had not chosen to attribute any “motive” to the mountain’s violence, but instead seemed to be accepting it soberly and practically–perhaps in the hope of calming the volcano by example… If it is the fate of volcanoes to become tourist attractions, then Montserrat is sure to become an A-list destination for thrill-seekers.

READ MORE ON THE NEW YORKER DIGITAL EDITION

DARK SIDE OF THE NEW ECONOMY

DARK SIDE OF THE NEW ECONOMY

Published March 1st, 2007 by Wade Graham

California’s San Pedro Bay ports form a vast metropolis of polluting cargo ships, trucks, and locomotives — a “diesel death zone,” say the neighbors, who are fighting back against the leviathan.

The Hudson School in West Long Beach looks like a typical California public school: a rectangle of perhaps 10 acres set in a quiet neighborhood of modest bungalow-type houses, with haphazard groupings of trailers (called temporary buildings even though they are manifestly permanent), broad lawns, and an asphalt playground bounded by chain-link fencing. On most days children of many colors play tetherball and basketball in the warm sun or sit at picnic tables shaded by tall pines, while overhead, gulls call and palm fronds rustle in the gentle breeze from the Pacific two miles away.

The breeze also brings the acrid taste of diesel exhaust and the stench of raw petroleum from the massive refineries that stretch for nearly half a mile toward the water. Just over the fence, beyond the tetherball courts, an endless double line of trucks — around 3,000 a day — creeps past on the Terminal Island Freeway, most of them hauling steel shipping containers into the Union Pacific rail yard that sprawls a few hundred yards from the Hudson School. Across the road, long trains piled with more containers, marked with block letters reading CHINA SHIPPING, HYUNDAI, YANG MING, and MAERSK, clank slowly along, and a locomotive pulling a line of black chemical tank cars idles. When the refinery nearby has to flare off more than the usual amount of gases, it calls ahead to the school and the students are kept inside. But on any other day there are no such precautions. And children get sick: The air can irritate eyes, noses, throats, and lungs and cause coughing, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Allergies and asthma attacks flare along with the pollution.

Long Beach is a harbor town. Its city-owned port is the second-largest in the nation, close behind the Port of Los Angeles, its immediate neighbor to the west, which is bounded by the communities of San Pedro and Wilmington at the southernmost tip of sprawling Los Angeles. Together they make up what would constitute the fifth-largest port in the world and the largest outside Asia, sharing a single, massive harbor embraced by an eight-mile-long breakwater curving out into San Pedro Bay. Inside is a prodigious landscape of infrastructure: 15,100 acres of land and water, interfingered with 60 miles of industrial waterfront bristling with cranes, ships, parking lots, roads, bridges, storage tanks, pipelines, warehouses, and rails. In 2005 the two ports handled nearly 5,800 ships that carried 40 percent of all the seaborne goods imported into the United States (some $300 billion worth), employing 500,000 people in Southern California and paying $22 billion in payroll and $7 billion in taxes.

All manner of traditional bulk cargo passes through: Oil, cars, salt, and steel come into the country while chemicals, plastics, gypsum, scrap metal, machinery, parts, lumber, cotton, and food go out. But most of the action is choreographed around the moving of boxes, the standardized containers that hold 90 percent of the cargo entering the harbor. At the San Pedro Bay ports, they hold mostly the cheap Asian consumer goods that have taken over the world’s markets. In 2005 the ports pushed 14 million 20-foot “container units” (many containers are actually 40 feet long) into the Los Angeles Basin, a vast, four-county coastal plain.

Forty thousand truck trips a day are needed to move the boxes from the docks and terminals along a circuit board of roads, highways, and bridges. Some head for the massive truck-to-train “intermodal” facility across from the Hudson School, where the containers are transferred to trains running north to the rail yards east of downtown Los Angeles. Others make their way to the narrow, choked Long Beach Freeway, I-710, which hugs the concrete channel of the San Gabriel River before branching out into the vast transportation matrix of the region. Half the cargo is absorbed here; the rest fans out across the country through the steel and asphalt circulatory system of distribution and consumption that sustains the U.S. economy. As an example, 60 percent of the imported goods shipped to the Chicago area come through Los Angeles.

The San Pedro Bay ports, abetted by interested governments, began investing heavily from 1960 on to capture market share in the new containerized global shipping business. In a region that has seen its leading postwar industries — aerospace, automobiles, shipbuilding, and other heavy manufacturing — gutted in the last few decades, this strategy has paid off handsomely. Shipping volume doubled from 1990 to 2000 and has nearly doubled again since. In 2005, volume was up 8 percent from 2004; in 2006, it rose another 10 percent.

A conceit of the New Economy is that it promises freedom from the smokestacks and sweatshops of the past two centuries. In some swaths of formerly industrial North America, factories have been replaced by Wal-Marts and FedEx vans. But this is only a local illusion, a magic trick of trade and geography, obscuring the underlying fact that the New Economy not only rests on the grimy, polluting old one but propagates, multiplies, and feeds it, spreading it around the world like a pandemic.

The off-shoring of manufacturing has moved some of the smokestacks away, but it has stoked countless new ones in the breakneck industrialization and urbanization of the developing world. And all that stuff made abroad has to be brought back to us, on demand, satisfying our ever-greater desire for speed and low cost. We click off our wishes on Web sites, setting in motion diesel engines by the tens of thousands: trucks, loaders, cranes, and locomotives, armadas of little smokestacks toiling to deliver us the goods. Ninety percent of international trade still moves by ship, as it has since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Ships ply the high seas between the developing and developed worlds, slipping easily through the spaces of oversight, rules, and responsibility. They typically burn bunker fuel, a form of low-grade diesel left over from the refining of gasoline and other diesels — literally the bottom of the barrel, with sulfur content 3,000 times higher than the fuel used in new diesel trucks. One large vessel burning bunker fuel generally emits as much exhaust as 12,000 cars.

At the San Pedro Bay ports, a ship can be unloaded and turned around in three or four days, all the while idling its auxiliary engines (called hoteling) to generate power and run equipment. Multiply this by 5,800 ships per year, then add the myriad tugs, barges, and smaller service and passenger vessels that throng the harbors, and you can begin to see the emissions volume from the boats alone. At the dock the containers are unloaded by a boy’s fever-dream menagerie of high-rise cranes and four-story forklifts (called top-handlers), then loaded onto trucks or flatcars, shunted into long trains by switching engines, and hauled off by locomotives — all of them diesel powered.

The twin ports now emit more pollution than the top 300 industrial sources and refineries in the Los Angeles Basin combined — in one of the leading power-generating and oil-refining regions of the country. The lion’s share comes from ships and boats, which release many times more pollution than all the power plants in Southern California put together.

The harborside communities of San Pedro, Wilmington, and West Long Beach are as variegated in ethnicity and national origin as any in intensely polyglot Los Angeles County. The crude machinery of twenty-first-century world trade presses up against people’s lives like a dirty storm surge. Jesse N. Marquez, a third-generation Wilmington native and an environmental activist, took me for a tour. Just blocks south of his house, a yellow bungalow on a quiet street, phalanxes of giant cranes and passing ships loom. At the edges of his and other residential neighborhoods, warehouses, refineries, petroleum storage tanks, and rail yards back up to houses and apartment buildings.

He told me that, in addition to the smoke, the smog, and the smell, noise and glare from huge overhead lights flood the area 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In unkempt storage yards, walls of empty containers, stacked up to four high, tower over backyards. Locomotives pass by pulling mile-long trains or idle, often for hours. And trucks are everywhere, some of the 15,000 short-haul rigs, nearly all of them decades old and heavily polluting, that pass by each day on choked freeways and access roads, or invade the side streets looking for a faster way onto the jammed 710, blocking traffic, getting stuck in narrow lanes, idling in front of the liquor store while their drivers look for a snack or a bathroom.

Marquez called it the diesel death zone. Driving behind the trucks, passing the refineries, you see and feel the smog and smoke clouds, you breathe sudden, inexplicable miasmas of chemical stench that vanish just as suddenly, your eyes sting and water, your head pings with sharp pains. In days bygone, harbors smelled of rotting fish, creosoted pilings, and the thousand dank or exotic odors of the goods that moved through them: tar, lumber, wheat, or spices. Now the only smells come from petroleum products and their combustion. “We’ve grown up with it to the point where we think it’s normal,” Marquez said. “But it’s not normal.”

The difference between diesel and ordinary exhaust is the soot — inky, greasy, visible particles emitted by typical diesel engines. Researchers have only recently learned that it is what we don’t see in these clouds that hurts us most: the fine particulates that make up 94 percent of diesel emissions, which are capable of penetrating deep into lung tissue and causing genetic and cellular damage. In addition to particulate matter, diesel exhaust contains volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde, as well as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, precursors to smog. It also contains arsenic, cadmium, dioxin, and mercury, among 40 cancer-causing substances.

Diesel exhaust is responsible for 71 percent of the cancer risk from air pollution in the state of California. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach account for more than 25 percent of the cancer-causing diesel exhaust in the region, and emissions have gone up at least 20 percent since 2001. Cancer risk maps show the results vividly: The susceptibility to cancer from air pollution is evident throughout the Los Angeles Basin, but it concentrates alarmingly around the ports, along freeways heavily used by container trucks, and in the inland warehouse and rail yard districts that are the trucks’ most frequent destinations. The California Air Resources Board released a report in 2006 that calculated the annual toll of premature deaths attributable to the movement of goods. The number was 2,400 statewide, or six deaths per day.

Damage from diesel exhaust, especially to the lungs, starts early in life. The Children’s Health Study, conducted by the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), followed 1,800 children in 12 Southern California communities for eight years beginning in 1993. It found that exposure to vehicle exhaust increases the risk for asthma and retards lung development in children, perhaps permanently. The study also found that in health, as in real estate, location matters: The worst outcomes came in areas next to ports, freeways, and rail yards. Teenagers in polluted communities were five times as likely to have clinically low lung function as those in low-pollution areas.

“As we see more roads, traffic, and trucks, we’re seeing measurable changes in respiratory and cardiovascular function, both in children and in people we hadn’t thought of as susceptible before,” explained Ed Avol, professor of clinical medicine at USC’s Keck School and one of the principal investigators of the study.

Laura Rodriguez, a native of Mexico and mother of five who lives in North Long Beach, told me: “En Long Beach, no se salva” — no one is safe. She and her family have lived in several different locations here for seven years, some closer to the ports or I-710, some farther away. Now they live in a two-story house on a tree-shaded street whose quiet belies the hazards that stalk the community. Of all her children — Carla, 15; Juliana, 13; Zachary, 10; Jorge, 7; and Angela, 4 — only Zach has not been diagnosed with asthma. Carla, who was found to have asthma two years ago, often has attacks in the mornings. At Long Beach Polytechnic High School, she plays water polo in the indoor pool and runs track. She complains to her mother, “I’m tired. I can’t run like I used to.”

Rodriguez volunteers with the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma, a grassroots community group that educates families about the health threats they face. She helps measure particulate levels and counts traffic on roads adjacent to local schools as part of USC’s ongoing study. She attends hearings before government agencies and speaks out. Above all, she keeps her house immaculately clean and tries to keep her children away from obvious sources of diesel soot. Still, she said wearily, “You can’t create a bubble. No matter where we go there are trucks and there’s pollution.”

As the Rodriguez family knows firsthand, the trade-offs of the New Economy are felt more painfully in some neighborhoods than in others. Ed Avol put it this way: “Everybody wants a better job and a plasma TV, but almost nobody thinks about the ramifications.”

The solution would seem straightforward: Clean up the smoke coming out of the stacks. It is, fundamentally, an air pollution problem, something with which California regulators have a lot of experience, starting with the mandated removal of lead from gasoline in the 1970s. Peter Greenwald, a senior policy adviser for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, one of seven regional subauthorities set up by the state to ensure compliance with air quality standards, believes that existing technologies can cut emissions related to the movement of goods by 90 percent or more. Requiring ships to use low-sulfur fuel would reduce their particulates by 60 percent, which translates to 35 percent of the port’s total.

Another big gain would come from requiring ships to “cold iron,” a naval term for plugging into dockside electrical power while loading and unloading. This would cut pollution by two-thirds if the replacement power was from a coal-fired plant, or up to 100 percent if it was from renewables. Yard equipment and locomotives can burn cleaner fuel and be outfitted with catalytic converters and particle filters, cutting their emissions by up to 90 percent. Rail lines can be extended right to the dockside, eliminating the short-haul trucks, usually the dirtiest and oldest available, that bring the boxes to the intermodal yard. Trucks, responsible for 40 percent of the nitrogen oxides and 31 percent of the particulates from ports, could be required to use cleaner fuel and engines, just as has been done with gasoline car engines, under California’s leadership.

But putting the diesel genie back inside the bottle turns out to be vexingly complex because of the structure of the business itself. First, it is international: Ships can freely travel from the sleek, modern quaysides of Rotterdam and Singapore to the outlaw docks of Mogadishu and back again. Problems of legal jurisdiction and political will, to say nothing of antiquated machinery, abound.

Second, the U.S. shipping business is widely dispersed geographically. There are 86 ports in this country, no two operating under the same regulatory controls. Most ports, such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, make no effort to curtail diesel pollution, even though the effects on local communities may be severe; their larger home regions are not in violation of federal air quality standards and thus haven’t triggered pollution reduction mandates (with the accompanying threat of lost federal highway dollars for failure to clean up). Southern California, which still has the worst air quality in the nation, perpetually struggles to meet its mandated targets. Ports compete with one another for business, and giving companies a pass on pollution can be a major, if perverse, incentive.

Third, ports are an unusual hybrid of government and business. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are city-owned, and each is under the nominal control of a mayor and city council, yet they are semi-autonomous in matters of policy and finance. (Most West Coast ports are run by cities, while most ports in the East and the South are run by regional, sometimes interstate, authorities.) Port agencies function as landlords, making their money by leasing docks and terminals to shippers and terminal operators; most of their net income goes back into the port rather than into a city’s general fund. Ports are public businesses promoting private economic development as a public good, making questions of accountability and oversight especially tricky.

Finally, the structure of the business is Byzantine. In addition to the port agencies, there are terminal operators, shipping companies, manufacturers (some of which, such as South Korea’s Hyundai, own their own ships), railroads, depot and storage yard operators, trucking companies (split between big, corporate long-haul operations and mom-and-pop short haulers), distributors, and retailers.

The business tangle mirrors the regulatory system — balkanized by overlapping federal, state, regional, and local jurisdictions. Although the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are subject to the environmental standards of 72 federal, state, and local agencies, the current situation is a result of near-total regulatory failure. Those rules that exist are often weak and poorly enforced by agencies that face determined resistance to oversight from the industry. The one agency with the direct ability to affect change, and in many cases holding a monopoly on regulatory authority, is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But the EPA has been characteristically lax, especially under the current administration. While it recently adopted a standard for ship fuel for domestically flagged vessels, it has been reluctant to touch foreign-flagged ships — the vast majority — arguing that it lacks authority over “international” commerce. (The administration has not been so shy when it comes to policing international financial transactions and communications, nor in putting customs agents in foreign ports to deter illicit cargo.) After much pressure, and 10 years of delays, the EPA implemented adequate standards for non-marine diesel fuel and new truck engines during the last six months, but it will not come out with even minimal standards for new locomotives for another year. None of these rules address the hundreds of thousands of engines now on the roads and rails with decades of service left.

Noel Park, now 63, moved from the Westside of Los Angeles to San Pedro in 1965, when it was a declining fishing port with only scattered freight traffic. Since then, he has raised two sons, grown his vintage Corvette business — and watched the ports gobble up swaths of the harbor with landfill islands.

The ports kept expanding. Park recalls picking up a local newspaper in 2000 and reading an article that mentioned that California — 10 years earlier, in 1990 — had officially listed diesel exhaust as a cancer-causing agent. Stirred, finally, by a sense of betrayal and long-simmering anger, he and his neighbors mobilized the San Pedro and Peninsula Homeowners Coalition, of which he became president. It was just one of many grassroots groups that sprang up in the region to counter what residents saw as the goods-movement industry’s assault on their communities.

“We finally woke up and started reading these reports,” Park said. Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), prepared as part of the permitting process for port expansion, are required by California law. Park said he read “dozens” of EIRs, all of which listed no “significant” environmental impacts from glare, noise, traffic, or congestion — only air pollution, which, thanks to the steady stream of public health studies being released, could not be concealed. He and his neighbors went to hearings before the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, which sets policy for the port, and spoke out. They were repeatedly brushed aside by port and city officials. “They just chant this mantra: ‘It’s the engine of the economy, it creates all these jobs,’ ” he recounted. In other words, economic growth was a greater concern than public health.

In a narrow legal sense, the officials were on firm ground. The California Environmental Quality Act allows an entity proposing a project, such as a port agency, to determine whether “overriding considerations” put the public benefits of the project, including economic growth, above the detrimental impacts. Historically, ports had made precisely this claim, and expansion projects went forward. ” ‘Overriding considerations’ to us means that the port and its tenants need to make money,” Park said, “and if a few of us die, tough sh-t.”

In 2001 several harbor-area community groups, including Park’s, approached the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Coalition for Clean Air, which had both become interested in the issue of ports pollution, to see what could be done to stop or at least slow a huge new container terminal being built at the Port of Los Angeles. It was no small project: turning a dirt lot at the base of a hill just north of downtown San Pedro, previously used to store containers, into a 174-acre terminal for the China Shipping Co., part of a multibillion-dollar international conglomerate. It would bring 150 ships and a million truck trips a year plus locomotives, yard engines, cranes, bright lights, and around-the-clock noise into what had been a relatively quiet corner of the harbor, close against residential neighborhoods.

The port was so accustomed to acting without community consultation that it hadn’t even done an EIR — in effect claiming that the expansion would have no adverse environmental impacts. “They just skipped that step altogether,” said Julie Masters, an attorney and former director of the clean air program in NRDC’s Santa Monica office. Unconvinced by the port’s position, community and environmental groups together challenged the permit process, first in state court, then federal, but were repeatedly thwarted. All the while the port kept building. Finally in 2002, a state appellate court stopped construction — though the project was nearly half finished — until an EIR was prepared.

The decision was a huge victory: No court in the United States had ever before stopped a major port expansion. Still, Masters and her team knew that the port could declare “overriding considerations” and eventually proceed. The delay would be costly, however, so the port had reason to negotiate. “We sat down with the port and the city and talked settlement,” Masters said.

They struck a deal: The port could continue to operate the 75 acres it had already built; in return, it would pay $50 million over four years for environmental mitigation, as well as switch equipment to clean fuels and electrify the docks for 70 percent of the ships to plug in at the terminal. Within a few years, China Shipping had converted 17 of its vessels to cold ironing, the first shipping company in the world to use this technology for its container vessels. Last year 71 percent of the firm’s vessels calling in Los Angeles plugged in, reducing the emission of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter for each ship by one ton per day.

In 2002, the same coalition challenged an expansion plan at the Port of Long Beach on the grounds that the EIR the port had filed was inadequate. The Long Beach City Council kicked the application back to the port for a new EIR.

The unprecedented stoppages served notice that harbor communities could no longer be ignored by the ports or the shipping industry. Companies “see the writing on the wall,” said Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong. “They know that if they don’t support these kinds of changes, the public will turn against them.” The outcome also demonstrated that alternative technologies such as cold ironing and clean-fuel yard equipment could be embraced by industry. At China Shipping’s terminal, the manic dance of machines unleashed whenever a vessel is unloaded and loaded again is startling for what it lacks: smoke. A ship plugged into a small barge festooned with cables spews no black clouds, nor do cranes, trucks, and top-handlers running on clean fuels. The air is markedly more breathable than at other port terminals.

On the other hand, the victories were limited: No other terminals were affected; the ports and their tenants simply delayed expansion plans and continued to increase traffic by becoming more efficient and adding nighttime working hours. Five years later, neither port had completed the mandated EIR, yet total business was still on target to triple by 2020 and container throughput to quadruple by 2025. And the ports were already bursting at the seams. In the summer and fall of 2004 a spectacular bottleneck of ships waiting to unload filled San Pedro Bay outside the harbor, with as many as 50 vessels stacked up at a time, each one sending a plume of smoke skyward as it idled.

With pressure visibly mounting, the state government and the ports drafted their own plans to roll back pollution to 2001 levels and triple trade traffic by 2020, a heroic achievement even in the imagination. The plans included a laundry list of mostly sensible technical fixes — using cleaner marine fuel, scrubbing ship stacks, cold ironing, replacing 12,000 short-haul trucks, retrofitting locomotives, expanding roads — all good solutions, but not very meaningful without mandatory controls or a means to pay for it all.

Then, in the summer of 2006, legislation drafted by State Senator Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach seemed to offer a solution. The bill proposed a $30 fee per container at the ports, which would generate $500 million a year to be split among security, infrastructure expansion, and air quality improvements. This would amount to just 0.77 percent of the goods-movement industry’s annual net of $64.7 billion but would substantially contribute to the $400 million to $667 million annual cost of the emission reductions recommended by the California Air Resources Board in its 2004 report on ports pollution.

Business groups protested: The California Chamber of Commerce called the bill a “job killer.” The National Retail Federation warned that it might push shippers elsewhere, to Canada or Mexico. To which David Freeman, chairman of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, replied: “They’re whistling Dixie.” Freeman knows there are no other ports in the hemisphere big enough to handle anywhere near the volume of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The industry, Freeman added, ought to get ready for change: “This is all going to happen, and it’s not going to have a huge impact on the price of goods.” The billions of dollars it would cost over five or ten years, he said, works out to “two cents on a pair of tennis shoes.”

The Lowenthal bill passed, but only barely; then, last fall, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Local proponents of the bill, such as Laura Rodriguez, were left feeling frustrated and “impotent,” in her words. “Sometimes I think that nothing we do counts.” Rodriguez attended a recent Long Beach City Council hearing where officials discussed 10 expansion proposals for port-related facilities. She wishes she could move to Big Bear Lake, a piney ski town in the San Bernardino Mountains, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where her children might breathe more easily.

Noel Park, also disillusioned after years of fighting the ports’ plans, decided recently to move 10 miles west to the Palos Verdes peninsula, where, according to the cancer risk map he carried around while house-hunting, the air is somewhat cleaner. “I swore to God I was going to live my life out in that house,” he said. “I’ve lived here 38 years.” Most of all, he was saddened by the implications of his own departure: “Anyone who takes the trouble to understand the issues leaves. And who’s left behind? The people who can’t leave. Well, God have mercy on them. If that’s not environmental injustice, I don’t know what is.”

THE JOLLY GREEN GIANT?

THE JOLLY GREEN GIANT?

Published October 1st, 2005 by Wade Graham

Governor Schwarzenegger could teach other Republicans a thing or two about protecting the environment. That is, if he doesn’t self-destruct first. 

On June 1, this past spring, I got to glimpse a day in the life of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California. That afternoon, at City Hall in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom was hosting United Nations World Environment Day, the U.N.’s equivalent of Earth Day. In a huge, high-ceilinged room, ranks of state officials and big-city mayors from six continents sat onstage, while several hundred invited guests and nearly half again as many members of the press waited for the governor to appear and kick off the event.

Outside on the square, a small fleet of prototype hydrogen cars was parked, attended by banners, blaring music, and clots of PR people ready to answer questions. All of the major German and Japanese auto companies were represented, each with a small minivan. Ford was there, with its 2006 low-emission Focus sedan. So was General Motors, with its massive, military-style hydrogen Hummer, developed expressly for Schwarzenegger — emblematic, perhaps, of the governor’s clunky evolution from Conan the Barbarian to environmental statesman.

After making the dignitaries and press rabble wait for an hour, the governor arrived and proceeded to announce a groundbreaking global-warming initiative. “I say, the debate is over,” he boomed, explicitly dismissing the Bush administration’s contrary position. “We know the science, we see the threat, and we know the time for action is now.” The targets he set were impressive, going beyond what even the Kyoto treaty would mandate: By 2010 California’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced to 2000 levels; by 2020 reduced to 1990 levels; and by 2050 reduced to 80 percent below 1990 levels. Then the governor sat down at a Lilliputian desk and signed an executive order. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation.

But before the applause died down, a stir of chanting and hooting was heard from a picket line of 50 or 60 nurses, many of them men got up in outrageous drag (this being San Francisco), carrying signs and marching in a circle, chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Schwarzenegger’s got to go!” As the doors were opened to the grand rotunda, where a reception had been prepared with smiling hostesses, tables piled high with hors d’oeuvres, and bartenders pouring wine, the nurses burst into the building and swirled up the staircases into the upstairs galleries, their chanting echoing off the walls. Below, prominent environmentalists nibbled shrimp and smiled somewhat uncertainly. An R&B band began to play as loudly as it could, but the musicians couldn’t possibly drown out the political ruckus threatening to engulf Schwarzenegger’s remaining term as governor.

The beginning was full of promise. Six weeks after announcing his candidacy in a special election in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger released an “Action Plan for California’s Environment” that startled Democrats and Republicans alike. It was a remarkable document by any measure; the final draft proposed to invest in clean energy and technology, including hybrid and hydrogen vehicles, to implement greenhouse gas emissions rules, and to resist the Bush administration’s push to gut power-plant pollution controls and to lift a longstanding moratorium on offshore oil drilling. It also committed the state to some major, quantified goals, especially on air pollution and electricity: to cut power consumption by 20 percent by some undetermined date, to reduce air pollution by up to 50 percent by 2010, to see 50 percent of new housing developments install solar panels by 2005, and to generate 20 percent of public power from renewable sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, by 2010 (seven years in advance of the timetable established by the Democratic incumbent, Governor Gray Davis).

In addition to the pollution and energy provisions, his plan also contained a laundry list of other goals long sought by the state’s environmental advocates: more mass transit, more green buildings, more inner-city parks. It could have been written by an enviro — a liberal and visionary one. It was.

In the late morning of World Environment Day, before traveling to San Francisco for his global warming announcement, the governor briefed me on the genesis of his environmental platform. We sat outside, under a tent furnished with chairs, a low table, and an ashtray for his cigars, on the otherwise empty roof terrace of the Hyatt hotel in Sacramento, directly across the street from the Capitol. During the workweek, Schwarzenegger not only occupies a large suite in the hotel, which he pays for himself, but also works here to escape the Capitol, with its low ceilings and hallways densely packed with police officers, tourists, and schoolchildren on field trips. When he first took office, he had a tent put up in the courtyard of the Capitol so that he could enjoy his cigars. But Democratic legislators with office windows on the courtyard complained about the smoke and even threatened to pass a law extending the required smoking distance from the building — which the governor threatened to veto in a move that reflected his deteriorating relationship with the Democratic-controlled legislature. His new tent atop the Hyatt looks at the Capitol dome, but mostly beyond it, into the milky summer haze of the Sacramento Valley.

Schwarzenegger has long been close to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a first cousin of the governor’s wife, Maria Shriver. According to Schwarzenegger, soon after he announced his candidacy for governor, Bobby Kennedy called him and said, “Look, I think it would be good if you, as a Republican, would talk about the environment. You’d be much more effective than us Democrats” — more effective, presumably, in reaching across traditional partisan lines and advancing environmental goals among the business community and other constituencies that are generally Republican allies. Besides, both men knew that any Republican hoping to win the governorship of California would have to reassure its heavily Democratic, proenvironment electorate of his bona fides. Kennedy suggested that Schwarzenegger call Terry Tamminen, then the director of the Santa Monica-based foundation Environment Now. “Call this guy,” Kennedy told him. “He will come over and work with you.”

Terry Tamminen boasts a very eclectic career: He has at various times been a ship captain, the manager of a sheep ranch and a real estate company, a recycling consultant for the government of Nigeria, and the owner of a pool maintenance company in Malibu. He’s written The Ultimate Pool Maintenance Manual and, according to his official state bio, several theatrical works on the life of William Shakespeare. He flies planes and helicopters and speaks German, Dutch, and Spanish. In Malibu, he met some environmentally inclined people who helped him found the Santa Monica Baykeeper; he ran the organization for six years before taking the helm of Environment Now in 1999.

Tamminen and Schwarzenegger hit it off: “I loved working with this guy,” the governor told me. “He explained everything in kind of simple terms.” Tamminen spent part of a day at the Schwarzeneggers’ house with the governor, his wife, and the couple’s four children, all of whom weighed in on the issues. After their discussions, Schwarzenegger and Tamminen agreed that “the trick is, how do you encourage businesses to grow and at the same time take care of the environment,” in Schwarzenegger’s words. He asked Tamminen to fill in the details and write the “Action Plan,” and gives him full credit for the vision it lays out: “This is really all Terry’s thing. I’m there basically to say, ‘Yes, these are great ideas,’ and put my stamp of approval on it.” The ideas Tamminen brought to him, Schwarzenegger admitted, “may have been things that I’d never even heard about. I was really never out there fighting for those causes until I started running for office.”

It was a case of recognizing political expediency, certainly, although Schwarzenegger tried to persuade me that the roots of his environmentalism reach deep into his past. He was receptive to Tamminen’s ideas, he told me, because of the connections he makes in his own mind between fitness and a healthy environment. To him, the constant quest for improvement that bodybuilding requires applies in some sense equally to the human body and the natural world. Such a notion doesn’t seem too outlandish in Southern California.

He also pointed to his childhood in the picturesque village of Thal in the mountains of eastern Austria. To earn a living, many of his relatives worked in a steel mill in the nearby industrial city of Graz, “where every day when you wiped the windows your whole towel filled with a black substance on it because the factory was right in the middle of town.” The river that runs through Graz, the Mur, he remembered, “was considered one of the dirtiest rivers in middle Europe.” Gradually, over the past four decades, awareness of these issues became more acute in Austria, prompting people to work “very aggressively to clean up the environment,” Schwarzenegger told me. “When I was a kid, you couldn’t see the bottom of that river. Now you can.”

In Austria these days, environmental protection is an issue of national pride, not of left or right, and all politicians are of necessity proenvironment. Schwarzenegger’s views would make him a fairly typical right-of-center politician in Austria.

The governor spoke often about the need to govern from the center, about finding a balance between environmental protection and economic growth. When I asked him what he thought the most important factor was in advancing the environmental agenda, he answered in one word: “Redistricting.” This is one of the core reform proposals he’s placed on a special-election ballot slated for November 8, when he will put to direct vote his proposition for moving the power to redraw districts from the legislature to a panel of retired judges. “We have to blend the two parties together,” he said. “That is, I think, the fundamental change that has to happen — to bring people to the middle.” Yet the election itself has become bitterly divisive and partisan.

In our conversation, he cited a credo that I would think about often in the coming days: “The trick with politics is that you walk the tightrope. If you step too far to the right you fall, if you step too far to the left you fall.”

After his election, Schwarzenegger named Terry Tamminen the head of the California Environmental Protection Agency. Out of the gate, the Schwarzenegger administration got to work on its environmental agenda. The governor, for instance, has vigorously defended the state’s authority to regulate CO2 emissions, which has been challenged by an auto industry suit. Schwarzenegger signed legislation that would help various state agencies better coordinate ocean protection as well as regulate fisheries, cruise ship pollution, and water quality. He also collaborated with the state legislature in passing a number of air quality bills, including one that provides funding to replace older, polluting diesel engines. He sponsored a Million Solar Homes bill to increase California’s total solar energy output from 101 megawatts to 3,000 megawatts by 2018, and ordered the state government, the largest power user, to increase its own energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2015. A 25-million-acre Sierra Nevada Conservancy was established, and the governor signed bills favored by environmental groups on pesticide drift, water quality standards for the San Francisco Bay, and allowing high-mileage hybrid vehicles in freeway carpool lanes. By executive order, Schwarzenegger inaugurated a California Hydrogen Highway Network initiative to build 200 hydrogen filling stations along California’s major freeways, linking the south to the north.

The hydrogen plan was typical of Schwarzenegger: bold, visionary, and long range, not requiring much pain in the short term. The program itself reflects his and Tamminen’s conviction (there often seems no clear way to tell the two apart) that environmental policy ought to be a kind of industrial policy, aimed at stimulating technological innovation and, through it, economic growth. Still, the governor acknowledged to me that the Hydrogen Highways plan is as much political theater as it is policy: “selling the idea,” as he put it. “It’s a motivational thing: Build hydrogen fueling stations, because that will motivate Detroit and other manufacturers around the world. They’ll say, ‘[California is] taking this seriously.’ ” 
In Japan last year on a promotional tour for California products and tourism, Schwarzenegger sat down with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who agreed that Japan and California should work together to realize a hydrogen economy. Although the two men made no formal agreement, the governor took this as an endorsement by Koizumi of Schwarzenegger’s Japanese-style shaping of advanced industrial development through a combination of incentives and regulation. And the governor was duly impressed when Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber of the German state of Bavaria arrived in California last year with a 50-person delegation, including “all the top industrialists in the car business. This stuff is going on,” he said, “because they all look at us as serious players, even though it’s more noise right now than actual substance. The substance will come from each station we build.”

But in that same first year, Schwarzenegger vetoed a slew of bills favored by environmentalists, including 10 that had been labeled as “job-killer” bills by the state Chamber of Commerce, and signed many bills favored by business lobbies. He let the federal Bureau of Reclamation renew 25-year farm water contracts for the gargantuan Central Valley Project at existing grossly subsidized rates without input from environmentalists.

Advocates such as Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), credit Terry Tamminen with maintaining open lines of communication, even in the face of strong pressures put on the governor by business lobbies and more conservative members of his administration. “He hasn’t been an apologist for Schwarzenegger,” Reynolds said of Tamminen. “He’s been fighting the good fight. And that hasn’t dimmed his stature in the governor’s eyes; he just promoted him” — from head of the state Environmental Protection Agency to cabinet secretary, overseeing the entire executive branch. Whether this move will strengthen Tamminen’s voice or distract him remains to be seen. When I spoke with Tamminen he acknowledged that it was a challenge to go from worrying about air pollution to worrying, in addition, about the prison system, health care, and law enforcement.

In any case, Tamminen’s is clearly not the only voice the governor listens to. In its 2004 environmental scorecard, the California League of Conservation Voters gave the governor only a 58 percent proenvironment score for his first year in office. (By comparison, Governor Davis received 100 percent in 2003.) Ann Notthoff, NRDC’s director of California advocacy, notes that the league’s rating looked at only one piece of the governor’s record — the bills that reached his desk. A governor is also accountable for appointments to his admininstration, executive orders, and legal actions. “He made solid progress during his first year by making several good appointments,” says Notthoff. “But this year has been a different story.”

Indeed, several recent developments have especially alarmed environmentalists. In July, the governor cut $40 million from programs for coastal protection, salmon and trout restoration, and parks, among others. More troubling has been the feeling that the governor has lately caved in to business lobbies in making key appointments to state and regional regulatory boards, quasi-independent bodies that wield enormous authority in California. This summer, two appointments in particular raised flags. Ron Nehring, the San Diego GOP chairman and protégé of antitax activist Grover Norquist, was named to the state board of forestry and fire protection, in spite of his lack of expertise in either matter. Of even greater concern to environmentalists was the appointment of Cindy Tuck to the chairmanship of the state air resources board, an 11-person commission that Notthoff calls “arguably the most influential environmental board in the country.” Tuck is a former lobbyist for the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance, a business group that has opposed many of the major air quality measures passed in the state.

Schwarzenegger’s governorship has been rife with political contradictions from the beginning. The task he set for himself of balancing competing constituencies would mean, practically speaking, giving enough goodies to each one to keep it in his coalition — or at least to not oppose him. Courting environmentalists may have been a brilliant early way to help neutralize those to the left of him on other questions, such as taxes, pensions, and education. But it couldn’t work for long, and environmentalists expect him to continue the good works throughout his tenure, not turn to soothe other anxious factions. The farther into his term he goes, the more precarious the balancing act becomes — and the farther he has to fall if he slips off the tightrope.

These questions could all become moot in the face of a much larger problem: what appears to be a rapid process of political self-destruction, as dramatic as his ascent, and all the more startling for its seeming utter avoidability.

After his landslide victory, Schwarzenegger’s approval rating polled in the high 60s. Democrats and labor unions, still in the majority but gun-shy, realized they had to work with him. The governor, meanwhile, made good on one of his most popular campaign promises — rescinding Governor Davis’s “car tax” on motor vehicle registrations. This added billions of dollars to the budget deficits he inherited. Schwarzenegger stubbornly resisted any new tax increases to raise revenue and instead looked to the big public-employee unions to cover the shortfall with concessions on wages and pensions. Taking an unusually (and, most observers thought, misguidedly) aggressive tack, the governor loudly called nurses, teachers, firefighters, and police officers “special interests” on TV. The unions responded with outrage and a barrage of TV ads of their own.

Sacramento slid backward from the politics of governing to full-time campaign mode. But Arnold’s playing his Terminator role after the election didn’t thrill the public or cow his opponents the way it had during the heated circus of the recall. The teachers, nurses, and cops — groups the public finds highly sympathetic — skillfully turned his rhetoric against him. By January of this year his approval rating had dropped to 59 percent. By April it had sunk to 49 percent, and most voters, even Republicans, agreed with the statement: “He should be putting more effort into working with legislators so he’d get more done.”

Instead, Schwarzenegger did the opposite, calling for the November 8 special election and infuriating his opponents. The legislature, stripped by term limits of veterans and controlled by a young, left-wing Democratic caucus led by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, has countered the governor’s every move with one of its own — even when Schwarzenegger’s proposals have unquestioned merit, such as a bill to require schools to serve California-grown fruit, which was pettily squashed by the Democratic leadership. Indeed, the day before the San Francisco World Environment Day event, Democratic legislators in Sacramento held a press conference, attacking in advance the Schwarzenegger global warming plan for not spelling out enforceable measures. However, since the legislators essentially agreed with his goals and didn’t offer significantly different policies, the stunt got little notice.

This chaos was worrying to those people, in California and elsewhere, who had seen in Schwarzenegger’s election the best chance in years to pull the Republican Party back to the center. Just as the Schwarzenegger administration finished out a pretty good first year, it seemed as though the partisan warfare in Sacramento could stop the bipartisan environmental agenda cold.

And it is the relationship between the governor and the legislature — currently abysmal — that will ultimately determine whether progress on the environmental front continues, is stymied, or is reversed. Mary Nichols, who was resources secretary under Gray Davis, explained to me just how limited the governor’s power is: He can sign executive orders, but, “if it requires spending any money or regulating anything or enforcing anything, you still need the legislature.

“Clearly environmental interest in this state is very high, and any governor can engage the public attention and get good press and overcome other obstacles by focusing on those issues,” Nichols continued. “I don’t think it was an accident that the global warming policy was unveiled at the same time as he was taking a beating over the special election that he’s called. It’s a way of getting people talking about something that you want them to talk about.”

While the appeal of his environmental platform to moderates and liberals helped Schwarzenegger get elected, it may not be enough to help him escape his current quagmire. A new poll released in July by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showed that a majority of Californians supported Schwarzenegger’s policies: 69 percent favored the greenhouse gas targets he announced in San Francisco; 76 percent favored his solar energy initiative; 83 percent favored requiring carmakers to improve fuel efficiency — and 73 percent would pay more for such vehicles. But this huge support for his specific environmental policies did not translate into an overall perception that he is proenvironment: Just 32 percent of Californians polled said they liked his environmental record as a whole, while 35 percent disapproved. His overall job approval kept sinking, from a May low of 40 percent, to 34 percent in July — the same as President Bush’s. In other words, not only did the governor’s very public proenvironment stands not help him, but they didn’t even register as proenvironment. The poll data are perplexing, but they suggest that Governor Schwarzenegger, ironically, has the same problem Governor Davis did: While most Californians liked his policies, they didn’t like him.

It is equally hard to fathom the logic behind the governor’s recent appointments. It may be that the more conservative members of his strategy team are counseling him, presumably against the advice of Terry Tamminen, that the moderate, proenvironment stands have cost more than they were worth and that he must make up ground with the GOP base. In California, this base isn’t religious conservatives, it’s big business — which can deliver money, though it can’t deliver votes.

It may also be, sadly, simply bad judgment. Pundits have taken to calling the governor’s strategy team “the gang that can’t shoot straight” for its ineptitude and uncanny ability to misjudge the public mood. Fresh setbacks have rained on Schwarzenegger nearly weekly since the poll. A scandal erupted when the press questioned the propriety of his multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts with American Media Inc., which owns several bodybuilding magazines — publications that advertise the kinds of nutritional supplements whose regulation he vetoed. He was forced to cancel the deals. The November 8 special ballot he called hasn’t been a hit either. In the latest poll, 54 percent of the public remains opposed to the special election, and 51 percent says that the state is headed in the wrong direction.

It seems clear that Schwarzenegger is unlikely to retreat too much from, much less abandon, his environmental commitments — they are the last point of common ground he shares with majorities of both voters and legislators in Sacramento. It also seems clear that the Schwarzenegger saga proves again that no politician can be elected governor in California without moderate-to-liberal positions on a set of core issues, the environment foremost among them. Whoever succeeds Arnold Schwarzenegger will carry on the state’s tradition of leadership on environmental governance.

But if in the next election Schwarzenegger is thrown out in favor of a traditional, reliably green Democrat, the environmental agenda in California will certainly be less vulnerable to shifting political winds than it has been during his tenure.

On the other hand, progress on the national front might be better served if Arnold the Republican environmentalist managed to succeed: In doing so, he might weaken the core opposition of the national GOP and give environmental issues some purchase in the Red states where they are now effectively suppressed by being identified with the Democratic Party.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failures, as much as his successes and his progressive environmental visions, can best be explained by his determination to “govern from the center” — which has meant, in practice, taking politically expedient stands across a spectrum so wide as to be incoherent, even contradictory. In the end, we are left looking at the Hydrogen Hummer: clean and green, we are told, but still a pretty incongruous hunk of machinery.

STOP THIS LAND GRAB

Published June 17th, 2006 by Wade Graham

Article written for The Los Angeles Times

THE PROPOSED sale of federal land in Washington County, Utah, is spectacular, in the scale of both its greed and its shamelessness. Legislation has been drafted to allow county officials to steal 25,000 acres of public land near Zion National Park to benefit themselves and well-connected private developers.

I stay “steal” because the draft bill — the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act, to be sponsored by Utah Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson — would require the federal government to sell land to private developers, then use the proceeds to buy other, less valuable land from the same developers at inflated prices. All without paying the taxpayers for their property.

As land grabs go, it is impressive, but it isn’t original. The scheme’s promoters are following to the letter the tired plot line of the oldest script in the West. It’s Chinatown, Jake, all over again.

The movie “Chinatown,” you may recall, was a fictionalized version of how, 100 years ago, Los Angeles stole water from the Owens Valley to make land development more profitable. Now, as then, politicians are trying to scare the public into believing that the future of their community depends on taxpayers footing the tab. Now, as then, the real goal is to make more profit for developers by subdividing land that the community, if it had been consulted, probably wouldn’t want developed. Now, as then, the boogeyman is water scarcity. That’s why the other goal is to open up protected public lands for a 130-mile-long pipeline to bring water from Lake Powell on the Colorado River.

The $1-billion price tag for the pipeline would be conveniently covered by the taxpayers of Utah, not just Washington County, through a sales-tax increase that would last for 15 years.

To put this brazen plan into perspective, consider Washington County’s recent history. County officials turned a blind eye as illegal roads were bulldozed across protected federal lands in an effort to claim them as county roads. One city, La Verkin, has declared itself a “United Nations-free zone.” The town of Hildale is a polygamist stronghold whose leaders are reportedly under investigation for alleged child sexual abuse.

But Washington County’s attempted water heist isn’t just a local crackpot scheme: 25 million people in seven states (California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming) and Mexico depend on the Colorado River. A new tap puts everyone’s supplies in jeopardy. The county seat, St. George, already has the highest water consumption of any desert city in America: 335 gallons a person a day, twice the national average. (By comparison, Phoenix uses just 170 gallons a person a day by using basic conservation measures). The plans to expand St. George sevenfold indicate a total disconnect from reality because Washington is the driest county in the second-driest state in the country.

Despite the scare campaign, the county doesn’t need new water. By simply wasting less, it would have enough for growth for 50 years, a study commissioned by the Grand Canyon Trust has shown. Even Las Vegas added 250,000 new residents between 2002 and 2005 while cutting its water use by 20 billion gallons — in part by paying homeowners $1 per square foot of lawn changed to Xeriscape. Even without the pipeline, Washington County has already grown 73% from 1990 to 2000. It is sure to keep expanding because it has few if any land-use controls. Bringing it more cheap water would be like handing dope to an addict.

The irony is that there probably won’t be enough water to fill the pipe even if it is built, because the Colorado River is already too depleted to satisfy the demands of those who hold its water rights. In the future, as the current rights holders put more straws in the Colorado, Lake Powell will be less than one-quarter full most of the time. With global warming expected to cut the Colorado River’s flow by 14% to 18% in coming decades, the West has an even bigger water problem.

If Washington County succeeds in hoodwinking the taxpayers, it will be a sad commentary on how little we have learned from our history of private pillage of public resources. But it is the county that will pay the highest price, in ill-conceived sprawl disfiguring one of the most magnificent regions in America and in a dangerous dependence on water supplies that are drying up.

Utah’s leaders ought to see that their state grows through responsible planning and stewardship, not through delusion, distortion and duplicity.

Congressional leaders of both parties and the public should stop this bill before it is introduced. And federal and state authorities should do a better job of safeguarding the public lands of Utah.

Beachless

Published December 16th, 1996 by Wade Graham

OUR FAR-FLUNG CORRESPONDENTS about beach erosion, the Army Corps of Engineers, and hurricanes…. Tells about Topsail Island, North Carolina, which is 26 miles long but no more than a few hundred yards wide… Tells about “beach renourishmem projects”, a program that a growing number of critics have come to see as tantamount to money being poured into the sea… Tells about the Army Corps of Engineers “Newjerseyization” of coastal beaches… Coastal geologists assert that, while the construction of hardened structures may save buildings, it actually accelerates beach erosion, bringing about the gradual disappearance of the natural resource that inspired people to build there in the first place. New Jersey was the first state to undertake intensive development and fortification of its beaches, beginning with the town of Cape May. Throughout the nineteenth century, residents of the fashionable resort kept their distance from the sea, building well behind the dunes. In 1911, boat owners convinced the federal government to stabilize the inlet to Cape May Harbor to the north. The harbor jetties interrupted the natural flow of sand to the southerly beaches, prompting the town to build groins to catch what little flow was left…. Down the same path went Ocean City, Atlantic City, Asbury Park, and so on, until fifty percent of New Jersey’s once famously wide strands had been reduced to rubble: mile anfter mile of seawalls facing angry waves and the wrecks of previously-built structures. Newjerseyization is well under way in other states: 27% of Georgia’s, 70% of Virginia’s, and almost 100% of new Hampshire’s tiny but beautiful coast. Even on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, which is economically dependent on beaches, nearly a quarter of the sandy beaches have deteriorated or disappeared as a result of some seven decades of beach construction…. Once a beech has been “engineered,” it is, in effect, prohibited from responding to storm waves by flattening and becomes progressively steeper, thus increasing destructive wave energy instead of absorbing it. As Orrin H. Pilkey, a Duke University geologist, observed, “seawalls destroy beaches, period.” … Over the past 45 years, more than 200 million cubic yards of sand has gone to renourish American beaches. Sand is expensive–as much as five dollars per cubic yard–and the cost of a new beach can run to about $2 million per square mile. In a typical corps project, 65% of the cost is borne by federal taxpayers… As geologists point out, renourishment effectively institutionalizes erosion: once you have done it, you must do it again–and then again–since renourished beaches tend to wash away faster than originals do…

<<BACK