Susan Cox 01.29.17




Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Susan Cox. She is a feminist writer, activist, and educator in Philosophy. She is a regular contributor to Feminist Current and a member of the Women’s Liberation Front board of directors.

So first, I’d like to thank you for your work, and second, I’d like to thank you for being on the program.

SC: Thank you, Derrick. Thanks for having me.

DJ: Today I’d like to talk about queer theory. It feels like there has been something of a coup in academia, sort of silent coup and also in discourse in general. At this point, this thing called “queer theory” frankly seems to control all of academia these days, and a lot of public discourse. But I am sure that a lot of people haven’t heard of it. What is queer theory?

SC: Derrick, you are certainly right that there has been this massive coup in academia of queer theory. We see it pretty much everywhere, especially in feminism today.

Queer theory problematizes what is called “the binary opposition.” For example: Man versus woman. Queer theory argues that binary oppositions are inherently hierarchical, in that one term is privileged over the other as the primary, and the other term is merely its deviant, or derivative. For example: Man is primary and woman is merely the negation of man.

In psychoanalysis, women were theorized as being merely “the lack of the penis.” So queer theory argues that we need to deconstruct all of these social binary oppositions. For example, man versus woman, heterosexual versus homosexual, natural versus artificial, nature versus culture. And we do this through the strategy of queering. And queering is basically a strategy of conceptual and categorical border transgression, in which each category becomes essentially meaningless and not distinct from the other. For example, if we take “man” and redefine “man” as not being a male person, but whoever feels like man, then we have queered that category and it is no longer distinct from “woman.” And this is seen as a progressive movement in getting rid of social oppression, because queer theory sees oppression as springing not from one class of people subordinating another and exploiting them for labor and resources, for their material benefit; but instead oppression comes from this very act of labelling these groups in a binary fashion, which is seen as restrictive and oppressive and people cannot express their authentic selves in this binary opposition.

DJ: Wait – I want you to keep going with this, but I’m guessing that, just like my brain is exploding from the nonsense of what is being conveyed here, that a lot of listeners’ brains will be kind of exploding too. I just want to give us a second to let our brains explode, and now, can you go on? This all … is just striking me as crazy. But keep going.

SC: When oppression is seen not as arising from these material relations of power, these class relations, but instead from the labelling of these relations in a binary fashion, from putting people into these groups of categories, then it really drops power out of the equation.

For example, Judith Butler; in her seminal text Gender Trouble, which came out in 1990, at the beginning of the third wave of feminism and was hugely influential to the third wave; argues that patriarchy is a… she celebrates the fact that the term “patriarchy” has lost currency in recent feminist theory, and that we cannot identify males as a class, as the oppressors of females, because this is too totalizing a gesture and actually this is not how it works, but oppression springs from these discursive structures of binary oppositions, and, if we identify males as the oppressor class, that only works to strengthen the binary opposition.

DJ: So let me get this straight. Even though 25% of all women in this culture have been raped in their lifetime by males, and another 19% percent have had to fend off rape attempts, this is not – naming the fact that it is males who are raping females, does not actually help to at least begin to address this atrocity, but instead … please finish that sentence, because I can’t.

SC:  But instead, when females unite together in feminism, this would only strengthen the gender binary, which is the source of all oppression. So it became really popular in feminist theory in the 80’s and 90’s to say that women are not oppressed by virtue of these material relations of power, but by the category of “woman” itself. They argued that feminism needed to proceed without reference to the category of “woman,” and that females could not be the subject of feminism as it was an exclusionary move, and that all of feminism’s actions had to be inclusive of all individuals.

DJ: So the abolition movement, the attempt to abolish chattel slavery in the United States, could, according to this idea, not reference the fact that it was white people enslaving African-Americans? And attempts to stop genocide against American Indians is then not supposed to acknowledge that? The problem is that there are the categories “settler” or “colonial power” and “indigenous persons,” the problem is that these categories exist, the problem is not that white people are stealing Indian land?

SC: Exactly. What happened with the rise of queer theory is that feminism became very symbolic, the idea being that the war that feminism needs to fight is merely on the symbolic level of erasing certain categories from language, through the process of queering. And when we drop power out of the equation we can see what happens, for example like you were saying about racist global colonization.

Take for example the surrogacy industry. Queer theory views surrogacy not as this racist, sexist system of exploitation, but as a positive movement. It does not view the exploitation of, for example, a woman in India as inherently…it basically… Say there are two gay white males in America who wish to have a baby. So they hire a surrogate in India to gestate their child; and they take the egg from another woman, through this painful and harmful extraction process, because the Indian woman’s eggs are of an undesirable race; and they implant it into her womb and this is not considered exploitation, but it’s rather a progressive movement of the queering of birth! Because it is seen as queering the binary in sexual reproduction of male and female, as well as queering the relationship between the natural and the artificial. It’s celebrated in what’s known as “cyborg feminism” as this utopian melding of man and machine, and as this blurring of these “oppressive boundaries.”

DJ: So I’m still finding that my brain is exploding. How did this ever get – this all seems like such nonsense. How did it ever take hold?

I want to read a quote from a queer theorist, and then I want to comment briefly on that, and then turn it over to you.

The comment from the queer theorist is that queer theory “seeks to answer a series of questions about what is normal, how normal comes to exist, and who was excluded or oppressed by these notions of norms.”

And that part, I think, is desperately important. We should ask ourselves, for example, how rape became normalized, how pornography became normalized. They call prostitution “the oldest profession,” which is certainly attempting to normalize this sexual exploitation of women. Likewise, how did it became normalized for this culture to have an economic system that destroys the planet? I think that that question is really important.

But it seems to me that that’s not all they do. There somehow is this pretense in there, because… Well, why don’t I just let you take over. Because that part I think is helpful. Separate out for me, if you can, where it went from a useful discussion like that – well, first off, do you agree that that’s a useful discussion, how things become normalized? And second, then how did this become so – how did they come to these really bizarre conclusions from that decent start, or that decent question?

SC: I agree with you, Derrick. It is an important discussion to interrogate how norms come to be norms, and what is this process? And feminist theorists certainly did this with the question of social construction, the social construction of gender. For example, Simone de Beauvoir is famous for saying “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” to try to interrogate this mechanism of social construction.

Queer theory is very much influenced by Michel Foucault, who is called the father of queer theory. He really popularized this method of what he calls “historical genealogy”. He originally got it from Nietzsche, but he popularized it in 20th century as a part of postmodernist thought. So he performs these historical genealogies, for example history of madness, history of sexuality; to show how homosexuality became seen as deviant.

And this is an important thing to do. But what queer theory does is it takes power out of the equation and says that these norms happen almost by chance, which is also from Foucault. Foucault argued that these norms kind of happen through contingency. And contingency is basically chance. They just sort of form that way, they just get momentum for some reason and keep going. No one knows quite why and they don’t really benefit any specific group of people.

Similarly, Judith Butler said that women are not oppressed for the benefit of males, but that these norms simply come to be and that they are very restrictive and oppress people in that fashion.

So take for example gender. The feminist theory of the social construction of gender is that it is coercively instated, so that female persons are organized into the subordinate class of women. And women are positioned as being illogical, frivolous, subservient, naturally caring, and sexually subordinate to males. And men are characterized as brave, active, intelligent, logical, leaders. So we can see how gender is basically the ideology that props up these two classes.
But in queer theory, they took the feminist theory of gender and made it into this all-pervasive plot to capture complex individuals into these restrictive binary boxes, and that itself is considered oppressive.

So queer theory idealizes individual performances of the self that exceed these binaries. For example Eve Sedgwick says that subversive binary performances of the self include BDSM practitioners. She says something like “radical fairies,” leather men, all of these sort of surprising performances of the self. And for queer theory, you can’t simply break out of the binary opposition, or refuse one pole of the binary opposition, because this only strengthens it. And the second wave of feminism identified heterosexuality, and more specifically compulsory heterosexuality, as a main regime of women’s oppression.

So queer theory took that and said that for example radical lesbianism, or political lesbianism, was not a productive feminist strategy at all. Because merely refusing heterosexuality strengthened the binary between heterosexual and homosexual, and what instead needed to happen was the queering of the binary entirely, thus blurring the distinction between heterosexual and homosexual.

Eve Sedgwick argues that lesbianism is not a subversive refusal of male power at all, but instead what is really subversive is for lesbians to have sex with men. And Judith Butler said pretty much the same thing. She said that lesbianism was not productive, but rather a man who is performing femininity, wearing feminine clothing, and that sexual relation is a much more complex production of power, and subversive.

DJ: Once again, my brain is continuing – it’s past exploding. It’s simply melting at this point. Part of what you’re saying is that – it seems like your perspective would be that a little girl should not be forced into “femininity” by being disallowed from working on a car engine, and instead being forced to play with dolls. You would say that that is forcing her into the structure of femininity, if she is not allowed – I mean, if she wants to play with dolls, that’s fine, but if she wants to work on a truck that’s fine too. Is this correct so far?

SC: Yes, that’s correct. That is the feminist theory, the feminist stance on the matter.

DJ: And so the queer theory perspective would be that the little girl who likes to play with trucks, or likes to work on trucks is…. is…. Finish the sentence, please.

SC: Is not a girl at all, basically.

So what queer theory argues; because you cannot refuse one end of the binary opposition, or strengthen the oppressed end of the binary opposition; is that we need to do away with the binary opposition entirely. So it argues that women are – you cannot merely be a woman, and say “I am a female, but I do not ascribe to femininity, I do not do femininity. I like things which are traditionally relegated to the realm of men.” This is no longer seen as something productive.

Instead, queer theory asserted the theory of performativity. So this is what Judith Butler is very famous for. She said that “woman” is not just a female person, but it is a performance. There is no such thing as real women, as “woman” is nothing but a parody without origin. So we are all just performing this idea of femininity and there is no such thing… there is no femaleness underneath femininity. So queer theory focuses on subverting the distinction between sex and gender. Originally feminist theory said there is sex, there are males and females, and then there is all this made up nonsense which is gender.

DJ: Obviously there are males and females or there wouldn’t be babies.

SC: Yes, but queer theory says no, males and females are just as fictitious as the gender categories of what’s feminine and masculine. And this has been really harmful for asserting any sort of positive feminist image of the woman who flouts femininity but is still a woman, nonetheless.

DJ: It seems to me – I’m going to throw out a philosopher here, too. There is what Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which is where you forget – in non-philosophical language, that’s confusing the map for the territory. And it seems to me – we’re all aware of that? If you have a map and if the map does not fit the real world, then you know there is a problem with the map. But it seems to me that – aren’t these queer theorists are saying that there is actually no real world and that there is only the map?

SC: Yes. The queer theorists are saying this, which is very much influenced from postmodernist philosophy, which basically says there is no “real world” onto which the illusions of society are cast, but instead it is nothing but a world of smoke and mirrors. So there is no such thing as a “real woman” or “real man,” aka males and females.

DJ: Or real nature.

SC: Or real nature.

That is also a motif of the cyborg feminism – there is no such thing as a natural person, we are all really cyborgs and there is nothing real and there are no boundaries that we can actually point to between the natural and the artificial, or the real and the apparent world.

DJ: This is not just in – If we expand this beyond queer theory, this is not just in sex. This is also in – there’s a huge movement – this is just one part of a larger movement There are the neo-environmentalists who say “There is no wild nature, there are only gardens. There is only what we make of it and we are going to run this.” They believe that what is – what we feel about the world is more important than the world itself. We see this in many different – we see this in the attempts to co-opt or eradicate indigenous nations and indigenous sovereignty. We see this all over and this is just fundamentally… I’ve seen a lot of mainstream articles about how people are suggesting, famous people are suggesting that the world is nothing but a giant computer simulation, like a computer game, as opposed to the real world. Basically this is like the triumph of what we think about what is real, over what actually is real. The triumph of solipsism, where the real world does not exist.

This was a joke we used to play with when I was in high school. I read in a science fiction story one time that oh, the world is nothing but my imagination. So I would say to my friend Ron: “You don’t really exist because I’m the only being in the world that exists and everything else is a figment of my imagination.” And since we were high school boys, he would punch me in the arm, you know?

My voice is getting thin not just because I have a cold, but because this is so crazy.

SC: It is crazy, and it’s a very harmful ideology, because when we cannot assert that there is something real, as for example, the natural world; when we cannot say that there is something real or there is truth, then we cannot fight for the truth and what is right.

And the real tragedy of queer theory and postmodernism in general, postmodernist thought, is that it actually comes from a good place in some ways. For example, postmodernism emerged as a critique to modern philosophy. And modern philosophy is characterized by asserting universal truths which are usually Eurocentric truths; objective reality and an appeal to nature. For example, women were excluded from much political theory because their nature was merely inferior and they could not have access to the levels of rationality required for participating in political life.

DJ: And the same is claimed to be true for Africans, American Indians and these so-called “lesser breeds,” that whites are – whites have conquered the world because they are naturally superior, not through their application of organized violence.

SC: Yes, exactly, because that is just “the nature of civilization” and the European civilizations are, well, you know; through such philosophers like Hegel, they viewed the Germans as the inheritors of the mantle of civilization from the Greeks. Also in Heidegger, he also espoused that, and he was a Nazi. We don’t talk much about that in philosophy. So postmodernist thought emerged as a critique to modern philosophy, which, for example, they said… It was basically an assertion of neutral objectivity. And so when all of these voices suddenly became more legitimate… There was, you know, in the 20th century, it had seen the end to a lot of injustice, the end to much colonialism and sexism, and the voices of women were actually becoming legitimate.

So these claims to universality from which women were excluded no longer held water. And when the modern philosophy would say “This is an expression of my neutral objectivity,” feminist philosophy looked at that and said, “Ahh, no, it’s not. It’s actually just an expression of your subject position as a white European male.”

So this was actually a very good critique. But then postmodernist thought took the turn to say, you know, not that this truth was incomplete or wrong, but to say that there is no such thing as objective truth, and there is no such thing as objective reality that can be observed. That everything is subjective, is a manifestation of one’s own cultural position. We see this also in postcolonial theory, which argued that instead of critiquing the Eurocentric universalism and saying “You were wrong” or “This is incomplete,” instead argued that there is no such thing as universal truth, that everything is merely culturally relativist.

When we cannot assert the truth, we cannot fight for the truth. It’s actually quite convenient to power when there is no such thing as objective truth, so people can’t say, “You are wrong.” They say “Well, everything is subjective, and a manifestation of your own personal reality.”

DJ: A couple things. One of them is that the best refutation of this that I saw early in my adult life was by Charlene Spretnak, who said that “For those who say there are no truths, I say there is this truth, which is that you need water to survive. So drinkable quantities of clean water are a good thing and we can build our truth from there.” The point being that we are animals and we require clean water to survive. We require air to breathe. I mean, if somebody were to start strangling you, or somebody were to start strangling a postmodernist, the postmodernist, one would hope, would quickly realize that there is a truth, which is that you need air to live, and you can build things from there.

SC: Mm-hmm. When we cannot assert the truth, you know, we cannot fight for the truth. It’s actually quite convenient to power when there is no such thing as objective truth, when people can’t say “You are wrong.” You can say “Well, everything is subjective, and a manifestation of your own personal reality.”

DJ: So I would then not be allowed to look at you and say “You are a female,” even if you are pregnant.

SC: Mm-hmm.

DJ: If you are pregnant, obviously you are a female, because males don’t get pregnant.

SC: Yes.

DJ: The point is that even on that level of truth, we’re not allowed to assert it. Correct?

SC: That is correct. This is also ideology that is very useful for power because when females do not actually exist, but when they’re just a performance, like we for example see this ideology in the sex trade industry, when women have to tell themselves, “Oh, I’m OK. I’m not selling myself. This is just a performance. I’m selling a service. I’m just pretending to be this thing and that’s what I’m selling.” The flesh and blood existence of women conveniently disappears into the commodity when they are nothing more than a performance. They’re nothing more than a text.

Judith Butler’s later theory, she argued that “women” is nothing more, gender is nothing more than an utterance, as a citation of certain norms.

And you know, I met a very smart feminist theorist at a philosophy conference and I said something critical of prostitution and she said, “Oh but, you know, sex work is not bad. I know one young woman and she’s more like an actress. She acts in a certain way that her clients like, and she has to change her personality and be an actress, depending on which client she’s with.” So it’s all very convenient when women don’t actually exist.

DJ: Let’s talk about pedophilia. It seems to me one of the arguments that’s made by queer theory; which you mentioned once, but you haven’t really hit, and you can hit it if you want; is the importance of transgressing social norms. And I think you and I would agree that there are certainly certain social norms that it is important to transgress. But it seems to me that queer theory, with denying that truth exists, is arguing that transgressing of social – that since some norms are… I’ve seen the argument made that because this culture has asserted that homosexuality is wrong, and that obviously is an unfair stricture, an unjust stricture, they then argue – I’ve seen a lot of queer theorists make this argument – that all restrictions against all forms of sexuality are restrictive and bad.

SC: Yeah…

DJ: So can you talk about that and include in this a discussion of the role of pedophilia in the formation of queer theory?

SC: Yes. Queer theorists certainly do make exactly that argument you just made. Actually, I recently saw that argument be made in a legal brief by the ACLU. It was a legal brief petitioning the State of California to legalize prostitution and their argument was that since there were once laws against sodomy, restricting adults’ sexual expression, that they should abolish any restrictions on prostitution, which restrict adults’ sexual activities. And this is a real thing. I can’t believe that’s the argument they made. It is ridiculous, but this is our ridiculous world.

And queer theorists do make the argument that all social norms need to be transgressed and that is a progressive force of queering. For example, BDSM is seen as a “queer” identity. And queer theory argues that there is not material harm done by, for example, someone beating someone with a whip and getting sexual pleasure from it, but that the social harm comes from the marginalization of certain groups who are seen as deviant, such as BDSM practitioners or pedophiles.

For example, Michel Foucault, in a 1978 radio interview, was advocating for France to abolish the age of sexual consent –

DJ: As in down to infants, as in down to any age?

SC: As in down to infants, yes. Make it so there was no restriction on sexual consent.

DJ: He’s not unique. Pat Califia also said that any child old enough to be able to choose whether he or she wants to wear shoes is old enough to participate in sex, by which she doesn’t mean playing “doctor,” but instead Pat Califia has written child torture porn.

SC: Oh my god.

DJ: Anyway, so go ahead.

SC: So yeah, this is quite a common argument amongst queer theorists, and Foucault himself made the argument in a radio interview. He said that there is not actually harm done by adult males raping children, but rather that children are merely constructed, socially constructed as a vulnerable population through various psychological, medical and legislative discourses, and that the pedophile is merely socially constructed as a figure, as a phantom. They’re nothing more than a phantom, and that the creation of this phantom through the law on sexual consent would actually cause the social harm and be carried out on the bodies of men, and women and children throughout society.

So this is what queer theory does. There are no material relations of power or exploitation or harm. There are merely these phantoms of social norms that are causing the harm, these categorizations of people, the categorization of pedophile, or the BDSM or the sadist, even.

DJ: So to be clear – this is all pretty complex material – the problem, according to queer theory, is not what happens, the problem is not the actual rape of a child by an adult – or they would not say “rape,” they would say “consensual sexual activity between a 4 year old and a 37 year old” – but the problem is not the sex act itself, or what you and I would say the act of rape itself, but the problem is how society responds to that act? And the problem is our discourse surrounding it, which is that’s where the harm comes to the child? Is this the argument, essentially?

SC: Yes. The argument is that it’s how society responds to it and it’s also the naming of it. So what queer theory advocates for is basically to render language meaningless, so that this action of naming harm cannot actually occur. You know, when we cannot actually name the class of males as the oppressors of females –

DJ: Or adults as adult pedophiles raping children.

SC: Exactly. When we cannot even name them –

DJ: Or white people stealing from indigenous people

SC: Exactly. You know post-colonial theory idealizes this process of hybridization where it blurs the line between oppressor and oppressed, and we can no longer make a distinction between them, because everything is this sort of queer mush of hybridization. And that is seen as the way to progress and liberation.

This is actually a real problem, because as Mary Daly said, “We cannot fight against oppression when there are no namable oppressors.” So this is a real problem for feminism, and also for any sort of activism or revolution, political revolution, when we cannot establish class consciousness and identify the division of classes. Who are the exploiters, who are the exploited?

This is the real mistake in the social theory of “othering,” or this is the vulgar misreading of the theory of “othering.” The idea of the “other” is that this social group is seen as this coherent group and distinct from the dominating group. And postmodernist theory argues that we need to deconstruct the creation of the category of “other” and make it so that there is no distinction between groups, and everybody is recognized as infinitely unique individuals who are irreducible to any social category of description. But in reality you actually need to identify yourself as member of an exploited class and unite together in class interest to be able to fight any power that is oppressing you.

We see this throughout history, throughout any act of slavery, colonization, or oppression. The dominant group can’t subordinate another group merely through brute force. They also need to engage in this sophisticated process of dismantling the group as a group, and this is done through banning their language, their religion and destroying their way of life.

For example, in the history of the western civilization, western civilization, the Romans, were able to consolidate their hold on diverse cultural territories by instituting a hierarchical system of spiritual authority, Christianity. And they were able to suppress paganism by burning pagan temples and executing pagan practitioners, but it still wasn’t enough. They had to appropriate certain elements of paganism into Christianity, like Yule and Easter.

For example, Easter is the Christian holiday of celebrating the day that Jesus rose from the dead. But Easter, where does that come from? Where do the bunnies come from? Where do the eggs come from? And it’s actually an appropriation of the Goddess of the Dawn, whose name was Ēostre. And it’s really a fantastic example of queering, when this goddess’s name was rendered totally meaningless, emptied out of all meaning that was subversive to the powers.

DJ: Can you talk more about colonialism? We had a talk a couple of days ago, sort of preparing for the interview. Can you remember the stuff that you said about colonialism that I teased you that I really wanted you to put in?

SC: Mm-hmm.

DJ: Do you remember what I’m talking about?

SC: I think so.

DJ: It had to do with commodifying – go ahead.

SC: Back to the theory of the “other.” The “other” was originally theorized by Simone de Beauvoir, and she said that “man” is the subject and woman is the “other;” “man” is the absolute and “woman” is inessential. And so this was taken up to be that, you know, the whole fashionable trend of feminist theory that woman cannot be the subject of feminism, that feminism needs proceed without referencing women, and everything is exclusionary and everything needs to be inclusive of all individuals, etc. etc.

DJ: So when indigenous rights actually includes, has to include – environmentalism has to include industrial humans. And indigenous rights has to include white people’s right to take from indigenous people.

SC: Yes, because the “harm” is the identification of indigenous people as “other,” according to post-modernist thought and queer theory. So Simone de Beauvoir, when she theorized this, she meant it in a way that when woman is the “other,” she doesn’t exist at all. Like she is given no existence apart from men.

And this is also what happens in any strategy of oppression. The oppressed group is turned into nothing more than a parody of what they once were, and a commodity, like sacred cultural symbols are turned into this exotic pattern that the dominant group will tile their bathroom with. Or religious garb will just turn into this fun costume that the dominant group will use when they’re at a costume party and play. So it reduces the people, the oppressed group to nothing more than a performance, and a parody.

And this is what it’s being advocated for in queer theory, that a woman is nothing more than a performance, she is just a citation of a norm, and anyone can put on this costume. It’s basically the obliteration of the oppressed group.

DJ: So we have about five minutes left. There are a couple of areas – everything you’re saying is, I think, really really important, and we have a couple of areas left. One of them is can you talk for a moment about the McCarthyism that seems to be inherent in queer theory, because their arguments don’t make any sense. It seems to me that what’s happening in the academia is there’s a litmus test, that if you don’t agree with queer theory, you’ll be kicked out, you’ll be deplatformed, you’ll be not allowed to speak. It’s become clear to me that the only way that queer theory can win arguments is by silencing its opponents, because it doesn’t make any sense. So do you want to talk for a minute about how this notion that it’s all just narratives – it keeps reminding me, I can’t help but think about Animal Farm. All animals are created equal except the pigs are more equal. It’s like all narratives are created “equal,” except that queer theory is the only narrative you can have.

SC:  Oh, that’s really a good parallel. I like that.

In academia, you know, or just the greater population; yes there is that whole – the McCarthyism of – and it’s definitely – a part of it is that because everything is just narrative and symbols and there is no material reality, words turn into violence. So if you say something that is dissenting, like a feminist critique of gender, of genderist ideology; that is seen as a literal act of physical violence. Because, you know; “words are reality,” “the world is a text,” etc.

But you know, in academia, really, there’s … or just in the world in general; like in feminism, I feel like there are a lot of women who are really open to critiques of this whole ideology. Because, you know, they are not actually – they don’t actually want to do bad things. They want to make the world a better place, actually. They have good intentions, a lot of people who are very invested in queer theory. I’ve met a lot of professors and academics who are very much into queer theory but it’s coming from a good place. They think that it is actually the path to fighting oppression in the world and it’s kind of sad.

I think that feminism, right now – we really do have a good opportunity to get our message out there, and to have it be well received, because I think women are just starving for some straightforward answers, because everything is to topsy-turvy. Like in gender studies departments, there are just so many reversals. If you pick up a Judith Butler book, which every gender studies department will have you read, it is just reversal after reversal. You can’t even read it. It’s just so bizarre and terrible. I feel like women are starving for something real.
They’re starving for real feminism.

I always think of, you know, to go to George Orwell; I always think of 1984, because it’s so descriptive of our current world. But I also think of a very particular character in 1984, whose name is Syme. And he works with Winston at the Ministry of Truth, and Winston likes to talk to Syme. Syme is very much, he’s taken all the ideology of Big Brother, hook line and sinker. But he’s very intelligent, and he’s fun to talk to. So Winston is having this conversation with Syme, and ironically Syme’s job at the Ministry of Truth is actually to “queer” language. And he’s talking about how the English language has so many different words for “good.” It has “splendid,” “fantastic,” “wonderful.” And obviously these words are totally useless when you could just use “good” or “ungood” or “doubleplusgood.”

So his job at the Ministry of Truth is to remove the specificity from language. And they’re at lunch break and Big Brother comes on to make an announcement, and Big Brother says things like “War is Peace,” “Peace is War,” and “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.” And of course last week they weren’t at war with Eastasia, but this is what the ideology is currently telling people to accept. And most of the people are just always so buffeted by all of these reversals that they kind of just accept whatever comes, but Syme is so intelligent that Winston looks at Syme when the announcements are saying “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia, and he sees him internalizing it in a more sophisticated way, to “doublethink.”

So it’s really sad. I think that a lot of the people who are very invested in queer theory are very intelligent, and it’s such doublethink. There are so many reversals. That’s Syme. He’s kind of the postmodernist academic I always think of.

DJ: We have like a minute left. Either a) could you say anything you wanted to say that I haven’t given you a chance to; or b) could you say how do you think we should go forward? How do we combat queer theory and try to bring back reality to our discourse, and to reality?

Or both.

SC: We need the specificity of language. George Orwell, in his book 1984 was really good in talking about language, because whenever it loses its specificity it always serves power, because you can’t challenge power, you can’t even name it. And so we just need to reach out to women. Like I said, women are all starving for something real, for real feminism. And I think there’s a lot of hope right now, and that good things are possible.

DJ: So how do you see queer theory then getting deconstructed? How do you see moving beyond it? How do you see this hope manifesting?

SC: Queer theory, like you were saying before; when you actually say what it is, it’s just obviously so ridiculous. And talking about Judith Butler, about picking up a Judith Butler book; it’s just so abstruse. You can barely read it. You can’t understand it at all. You’re like “What is she saying?!?”

And it seems very intelligent because of that. It’s given this sort of aura of authority through this academic language. And that’s how a lot of queer theory is. But I think queer theory is very much vulnerable in that if you actually just outright say what it is, it’s like “Well that is really dumb.” So I think if we’re talking about it, and just describing it as what it is, and also identifying queer theory and postmodernist thought in our conversations, and in the political environment around us, that it’s very vulnerable to critique. So there is hope there.

DJ: Yeah, I think any philosophy that can be used so easily to promote pedophilia is obviously very vulnerable.

SC: Yeah. That is just so obviously unacceptable.

DJ: Well thank you so much for the interview. I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Susan Cox. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.



Ofir Drori 03.04.18




(Sound of chimpanzee)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Ofir Drori. He is the founder of LAGA – the Last Great Ape Organisation, an enforcement non-governmental organization that fights corruption in order to bring about to the arrests and prosecutions of major wildlife criminals dealing in endangered animal species. LAGA’s award-winning model for a wildlife law enforcement NGO started in Cameroon and is now replicated in the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Gabon. In 2005, based on the experience of fighting corruption in the judiciary and the forces of law and order, he has founded another NGO, called Anti Corruption in Cameroon, or AC–Cameroon, which focuses on establishing Anti-Corruption law enforcement in Cameroon, and involving citizens in the fight against corruption through direct legal action. He is a co-founder of The EAGLE Network, which is leading the fight against wildlife crime with more than 2,000 significant wildlife traffickers jailed to date, fighting corruption to break complicity and ensure justice. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the World Wildlife Fund Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal.

So first off, thank you for your extraordinary work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

OD: Thank you, Derrick. Glad to be here.

DJ: So can you talk first about – I guess define trafficking in wildlife and then talk about the scale of it and the harm it causes?

OD: Sure. People don’t really understand, but illegal wildlife trafficking, illegal wildlife trade is the fifth largest illegal trade in the world. It fetches a lot of money, unfortunately. We know a little bit about the ivory trade. That is something that is known. But there’s also illegal trade in lions and leopards, for the skins, as trophies. There’s also illegal trade in some of the birds we can see as pets, one here and one there. We don’t really understand it. We are talking about a thousand parrots, half of them dying on the way, in a shipment coming from Africa to supply this market.

There are magnificent creatures called pangolins. They’re sort of ant bears, for people who don’t know what pangolins are. They are mammals and their bodies are scaled and the scales are worth a lot of money. They are fetching a lot of money in Asia and China and Vietnam and are really featuring in illegal trade. Each time we see more and more animals that we don’t expect to be killed for anything, really, re-entering into this kind of industry of illegal trade. Therefore they’re assimilated really fast and that leads us towards extinction for many of those animals. This is the illegal trade in wildlife trafficking we’re talking about, and most of it is organized crime. It’s very well organized and sometimes connected to other forms of crime, like drug trade, like arms trade, and others. These kinds of mafia organizations undertake this trafficking. They’re good at it, far better than anyone else, and they are accelerating the race towards extinction of these animals.

DJ: It seemed to me that the story of how you got started in fighting this was an example of some of the problems you’ve faced with the corruption. I’m thinking of that first baby chimpanzee. Do you want to briefly tell that story?

OD: Sure. Of course. That’s the source of my passion for this fight. I was an adventurer criss-crossing the African continent, looking for adventure and trying to find wisdom and tap into those ancient ways and learn more from tribes that were living in isolated areas, different cultures that still survive. And it turned me into an activist, just trying to give back to this continent that gave me so much. And therefore, as an activist, I was trying to do my best, moving from country to country, just trying to do something good. And so, I was developing different skills as a part of that. And at that time I was trying to write about human rights in Nigeria and it got a bit risky, and I crossed into Cameroon, basically to take it easy. And I was thinking one good thing I could do with my time was write about the extinction of apes. The illegal trade in ape’s meat was leading to their extinction and I had in my mind a sentence from Jane Goodall that said that in 20 years from now, we’re going to lose gorillas and chimps from illegal trade in their meat. It’s called “bush meat.” Basically the meat of chimps and gorillas is considered a sort of exclusive, sort of like a caviar, if you’d like, of the jungles of central Africa where these animals live.

And so I crossed into Cameroon and started writing about this problem I thought I would have a meaningful interaction with, and it was pretty easy. I volunteered in a sanctuary of apes and spent time with the chimps and realized how much they are like us, how sensitive, how unique these animals are, so close to being human with such an emotional world, social world, that it really makes you wonder about the differences between the animal world and ourselves, and how we usually perceive ourselves to be so far away from it. The chimps are kind of challenging that.

And then I went out and was trying to go into the market and trying to look at the illegal trade and there were actually ape parts being sold; ape hands and ape bodies and so on. It was sold by the same police officers, the same wildlife officers who were entrusted to protect those animals in the first place. So the corruption was really out there, and I joined this check point and I wrote about that and saw how in the check point cars were stopped and when they were seizing ape meat they were just reselling it back to the traffickers. So corruption was really undermining the application of the law. There was a law in Cameroon that gave up to three years imprisonment to anybody even touching a chimp. And I was asking the question: If everything is corruption over there, the same enforcers of law are those who are running the illegal trade, how many times was this law applied over almost a decade that it was in place? And the answer was “zero.” It was never applied. Zero wildlife prosecutions, zero arrests of wildlife traffickers. That isn’t surprising when you look at the corruption that undermines the enforcement system and the judicial system. And therefore after two or three weeks I already had 80% of a 20 page article that I wanted to write, and get out this message about this problem to the world. And it was very clear that chimps and gorillas are so much like us and they are endangered and they are racing towards extinction and it is because there is illegal trade in their meat. And because there is corruption and the law is never applied, we have a far deeper problem.

So I was looking for the light at the end of the tunnel with this article and my stay there. My idea was to write this article and to direct the public to those who are fighting against this dark prophesy that in 20 years they’ll disappear. Those activists in the field are fighting against all odds and trying to direct the public to say “Please help them,” and that’s how you’re going to have something meaningful out of reading my dark article. So the light at the end of the tunnel was what I was looking for. Therefore, I was going to the NGO’s, to the nonprofits, to the conservation world. I was knocking on those doors of the big conservation organizations, knocking on the doors of the international community, environmental programs, and I couldn’t get answers. And when finally I got answers – instead of answers, I got huge buildings, huge castles, but nothing concrete. And when finally I got answers, these were the answers.

The answers were: “Enforcement has nothing to do with us. We are just doing seminars and workshops and sometimes buy jeeps for the government, but that’s it. We don’t touch enforcement. That’s not our role.” And I was pretty shocked, because I was looking for activists and I found maybe the opposite. And I continued to dig into it. I was asking about corruption and no nonprofit official – they were all afraid to even pronounce the word “corruption.” So I was running into a far bigger problem, because I thought conservation was the solution to this problem, and then I realized that conservation was a bigger problem. Dysfunctional, sometimes corrupt, and definitely not directed towards what needs to be fought. And not having that kind of activist approach that I was sure was there for anybody who is trying to fight to save these animals.

Therefore I left to a small town. I was frustrated. I was kind of stuck in my article. I went out of the capitol, four hours out, into a small town, and I could immediately find people who told me “here is gorilla meat and here is where we sell chimp meat,” and that’s how the trade is going on, “and we also have two live ones.” Basically the two live ones they were talking about were survivors of the illegal bush meat trade, the trade in ape meat. And it was basically when a poacher goes and starts killing, starts shooting down a chimp or a gorilla, he’ll end up killing a family of chimps or gorillas because they protect each other. And if you shoot a mother, a baby would cling to the mother’s body, because the babies are completely dependent on their mothers for the first three years or so of their lives.

So if a poacher kills a mother, the mother falls onto the ground and the baby won’t run away. He’ll still be very dependent, like a human baby. So he will cling to the mother and start crying and crying, and the poacher will hold him in his hand and decide: “Maybe I can kill him right now with my machete for the small amount of meat he has on him, or maybe I can try my luck in the pet trade. Maybe I can try to sell him as a pet.” And with that option, these babies have a little bit of time before they end up dead anyway.

And I went to the first one, they took me to one of the two live ones they were talking about, and it was a baby gorilla, and when we reached there the baby gorilla had already died. And that’s how gorillas are. They’re very sensitive. You’ll give that baby gorilla milk and water, everything physical you can give, and if you don’t give that baby gorilla love and attention, it will just snap and die.

And then I continued to the baby chimp, the other baby they were talking about, the other live one. And I went there and there was this baby chimp, one and a half years old, really tiny. And they were treating him like a rat, poking him with a stick, and he himself was acting like a rat. His emotional world was kind of locked. That’s the way chimps survive that gorillas can’t, so they can stay alive a little bit longer.

But this one was about to die. He was really sick. They tried to sell him to me and of course I wouldn’t do that. I wanted to rescue this baby chimp, but if I would give him the money they would just go back to the forest and hunt some more, knowing that there is more demand.

So I went to the wildlife officers, the wildlife station, and I said “Look, there is a baby chimp here, we need to rescue him, we need to save him, he could die. There are people breaking the law. You need to apply the law.” And they basically told me “Well, give us money.” And I said “Listen, you don’t understand. There is this baby chimp. The law is on the wall, here it is, written in a poster that is on your wall. You are the ones to apply it. It’s your job.” And they said “Well, what will you give us?” Totally corrupt.

After half an hour of arguing and trying to persuade them to do their jobs, they were telling me “What’s your problem, white man? You want a baby chimp? We will sell you another baby chimp.” So those wildlife officers were themselves traffickers. So I went back to my motel and I couldn’t sleep that night. I knew I had to save this baby chimp who is just one and a half years old and is at risk of death. So I couldn’t sleep all night and I wrote all my anger on a piece of paper, all my anger at corrupt African governments, at the corrupt conservation world, and at the ineffectiveness of the entire system. I started writing out all my anger at what is wrong in the system, all that I hated and was frustrated about. And during the second half of the night, I started asking myself “What did you expect to find?” So I started writing what I thought should be, and that would be an organization based on activism. Local activists, patriots. People of the country who would fight to change their country. Fighters, not conservation career people. Those who would fight to fight corruption, to get these laws that have never been applied, now applied, into application. And they would have the kind of organization that would have an investigation unit that would go and have undercover investigators infiltrating those networks and finding, not the small poachers, but those police officers I saw. The corrupt ones who are orchestrating everything. And then would also have an operations unit. Not just give information to the same corrupt police officers but supervise them and take them by the hands to do their jobs and make them do them, and fight bribing attempts in the field.

And then a legal unit, that would follow up all these cases in court, because the courts are as corrupt as the police officers and the wildlife officers. So the organization will have to follow up these cases and take responsibility for intercepting those corruption attempts, block them, and act as a bodyguard to these entire enforcement and legal systems. Even visit those traffickers in jail to make sure they’re still there, because they can bribe their way out.

And then a media unit that would actually publicize everything, and show that the law is applied and create some deterrent, for every action that is an enforcement action, advertising that the law is applied.

So I wrote this entire thing overnight, and the following morning I went back there and I said to the warrant officers “Just give me the book of law. I know you’re afraid of these guys. Just let me have it, and I’ll take the baby chimp.” And I went to the house of those traffickers that offered me this baby chimp and I took the book of law and I put it on their table and I said “Read it. Three years imprisonment for anybody even touching a chimp.” And they looked at it. And they looked at me. And they were totally unimpressed. So I said “Look, I know that this – the law – is nothing for you. This is just a bribe of, what; two or three dollars? I know what it means. But this is exactly my new job.”

Then I started bluffing them, using what I wrote during the night. I said “I’m a part of this big new organization and what we do is we fight corruption to get the law applied, and all my job is to make sure you don’t bribe your way out of this law. And we contacted a judge and the judge is waiting for you.”

At this point, they went totally hysterical. My bluff worked very well. I acted as if I was calling an imaginary headquarters and said “Yes, they are ready, they are cooperative, you can tell the judge everything is ready. Yes, there is a car. The car is coming to take you. That’s okay.” And the bluff worked very well. At one point I was telling them “You know, if you remain my informants, maybe you’ll tell me more about those who activate you, who are higher up than you in the illegal trade, then maybe there will be something I can do for you.” And they were just pleading for me to help them.

At this point, of course, they just wanted to get rid of the baby chimp. And I went there, to this tiny baby chimp who was tied by the waist. He had a wound in his waist from the rope. He was in a dirty kitchen and I untied the baby chimp. Everybody thought he would run away because they were treating him like a rat and he was acting like a rat. But I knew what was inside him. A baby. So I untied him from his ropes and held my hands outstretched, and he climbed my body and gave me one big hug around the chest. And in that second, he turned back from a rat into a baby with a full emotional world opening up, and the needs of a baby.

And that was it. That hug was permanent. He chose me as his foster mother and father, and from that second it was impossible to separate us because he was holding on to my body the whole time. I named him “Future” because that’s what I wanted to give him, a future, this baby chimp. And I went back to the capitol, thinking still that I’d give my plan that I’d spent the last night writing, for somebody else to do; give this baby chimp to a sanctuary; and then continue to move from country to country as I’d done before as an activist. But no sanctuary would take Future, and this baby chose me, and I quickly realized that I wasn’t just there to give a future to this baby chimp, but to try to fight for the future of his species. And so I would say that Future the baby chimp forced me to apply exactly what I had written the night before and open the first wildlife law enforcement nonprofit in the world at that time.

So that’s my story, and that’s my passion towards this fight.

DJ: So one of the reasons that you are one of my heroes is because a lot of people feel bad about things, and a lot of people can have good ideas. I mean, I have a friend who is desperately sad because the prairie dogs in Colorado are being wiped out, and instead of just feeling sad about it, she gets up every day and fights for the prairie dogs. And that movement from just feeling bad about it to actually doing something; I just want to tell you explicitly how much I respect you for that.

OD: Thank you! But you know, I think people who are doing those kinds of things, who I would call activists, are not much different from anybody else out there. All of us are angry about something. All of us are frustrated about things we see around us: our communities, our environment. A variety of things. Environment, our environment, Africa, the U.S., it doesn’t matter. We’re all angry. But most of us are able to zap to the next station, or to the next thought. People neutralize the possibility of action by thinking “I can’t do anything. There are some professionals out there, they do that. I am not able to make a difference. I am not able to make change.”

And I think the difference between an activist and those who are not yet, is just a small difference. A small experience of actually trying and seeing how easy it is to make a difference. Anything that you do actually does make a difference.

That’s how it was with me, because I was an adventurer and I was moving around, having adventures, all across Africa, in isolated and pristine lands. And I was just trying to give back. It was surprising, the first times, how easy it was to do something like that. Once you take the first steps – for me, it was, whether teaching in a school or helping in farmland for one of those tribes, into helping in internal operations, into writing. These were all experiences that were just showing me that yes, it is possible. Just take your time and you can make a difference. Once you realize that it’s possible, this possibility becomes also responsibility. Your responsibility to participate in change, participate in shaping your communities, and in shaping your environments.

So I’m trying all the time to connect with people and explain that. Activism for me is a way of life. It is so much more fulfilling than those I see around me. And the truth is that it’s so easy and so obvious. But people keep having those feelings of “No, we can’t do that. There are others that can do that, other professionals. I’m just a guy.” But all these changes are happening because of “just guys.” So just try to do it. Realize that you can contribute to a change that will make a difference.

DJ: You mentioned pangolins earlier. A couple years ago, I interviewed Maria Diekmann, who does a lot of work to both stop trafficking in pangolins, and also to rehabilitate pangolins. And her story of how she got started was that she’d read about them and she was complaining to a friend of hers; “God, this is so terrible, it’s so horrible what’s happening to them.” And he just said “Well, so do something about it.” And there you go. She did. And she’s devoted her life to pangolins ever since.

OD: (Laughing) Yeah. I think it’s like that. If I look back at different fights that we’ve had, in wildlife, in human rights, in democracy, none of this was one big win or one big fight. It was all just small contributions. Some people think that the real difference is that you’re not able to change the world, but the truth is that nobody does. You don’t change the world. You just make your own small, tiny contribution. And it ends up, it does end up mattering. That’s the message I always try to send. I wrote a book called The Last Great Ape and in that book, one of my biggest messages, the reason why I wrote it, about my adventures and understanding my path to activism is because I do want to influence more people out there, people who have that feeling that they do want something to change. But it’s hard for them to make the first step. I’m trying to use my experience to communicate with anybody out there. Just try. Not something big. Not something huge. Just try to make one step. Try to make one small difference, and you’ll see how fulfilling it is, and how meaningful it is for you.

DJ: So in a couple of minutes I would like to talk about a recent victory with the arrest of the elephant traffickers, the ivory traffickers. But before then, I’m wondering whether you can say just a little bit more about how you went from this idea of an organization to actually having the organization itself. Was it easy to find allies once you stepped in? Or was that difficult? How was that process of moving from a person with a great idea and a chimpanzee attached to your chest to someone who is actually working with law enforcement? How did that transition happen?

OD: Well, it was a hell of an adventure. It was a weird mix because I was a father and mother to a baby chimp, and at the same time I was trying to look more serious and go to the government and try to talk about that, and build the political framework for it. That was always a huge contradiction. I remember Future the baby having nightmares at night, because they do have memories of the killing of their families. So Future would sleep on my chest at night, with a diaper, and I would feel his eyes moving, shifting to the sides each time, and then he would jerk away and be jumping, trying to get milk. Obviously he could not, but he would try to suck my body, and try to find comfort in that. He would often give me these hickeys. And I would go to the Ministry during the day and try to look respectable and talk about opening an organization and meetings, and I would have these hickeys on me. That was pretty embarrassing, and when I would try to explain this, that I share my bed with a chimp, that would not help with trying to build a credible image.

It wasn’t easy. It was a big fight. There was great resistance to this idea, of course. There was corruption all around and we were trying to shake things up. I had nothing. I had no money, we had no office, no car, no computers, no budget. Basically nothing. All I had was an idea. And that was fantastic, because that filter was great, having nothing. Because that meant no one would be attracted to my orbit just because they thought they could get a job. The only ones who would be in my orbit and come closer to me and try to understand what is going on would be people who needed something other than money, and not a job. And that was a great filter, because the only guys who would come closer would be people who needed something else. Maybe a sense of achievement, maybe from a sense of patriotism. Maybe from a need to show themselves they can do something good, something beyond themselves.

And so I started getting Cameroonians at that point. You know I started in Cameroon. People who would have their own pure motives, simply because there was nothing else. When we first tried to apply it, it was equally crazy. Our first operations were completely violent, went in all directions. I didn’t know what to expect. There were many failures in the beginning, many risks. It felt like everyone was against us. The traffickers, the government. Everyone out there. Even the conservation community was against us. Everyone was against this happening. But we pushed through and we were persistent. And together, with this group of local activists, we managed to make it happen. After a few months, we managed to get – without money and without anything, just a group of activists managed to get the first ever wildlife prosecution in the whole of central and western Africa, in the whole of forested Africa where these apes live.

DJ: Before we get to the elephant question in a moment, this also seems – I mean, you’re going against people with a lot of money involved. Has this been dangerous for the people on the good side?

OD: Yeah. 100%. We’ve had that all along. We had that at the beginning and we’ve had that until now. We have risks not just from the traffickers but also from corrupt police officers, from corrupt wildlife officers. We experience that all the time. Physical risks, political risks, legal risks. The machine is definitely fighting back. Having threats like “When I get out of jail I’ll kill you” is something trivial for us. It’s just a part of our work. There have even been attempts on the lives of some of the people. But we push through, you know?

I’ll give you an example from Gabon, one of our countries. One of the activists, a legal advisor, has been in an operation, in an arrest operation. He was trying to catch a trafficker. The traffickers were outside. The police officers who came with the operation tried to sabotage their own operation. The legal advisor was left alone trying to chase a trafficker who ran away. And as he was doing that, the trafficker went around, moved around and shot him in his behind. It was Christmas and the guy spent Christmas in the hospital. He was interviewed for television and said “I’m going to get better and when I do, I’m going to find this trafficker who ran away and I’ll put him back in jail. The fact that he shot me only makes me a stronger activist and stronger in this fight.”

And you know what? That’s basically what happened a few months later. So that is an example of the risks and kind of spirit of activism that we have in our community.

DJ: Now let’s jump to this recent success. Can you tell me about the recent arrest having to do with elephants?

OD: Yeah, sure. I spent my Christmas in the Ivory Coast, where we were trailing a big criminal syndicate. I talked earlier about organized crime. Here is an example. This is a criminal syndicate that is connected to Vietnamese organized crime and has a presence in at least seven countries that we know of. They have been engaging in many criminal activities that we know of, and this is one of them. We started investigating that along with the US authorities. But for a long time they were not really advancing on these investigations. There are many seizures. You see the seizures of containers of ivory, but no one gets arrested. And this specific syndicate was engaging in a specific method of trafficking and that’s how we knew how much they were doing. They were hollowing out pieces of timber and putting ivory inside and covering it with wax. Then they would put it in a container and then exporting it immediately.

We looked at this criminal syndicate and realized that this syndicate was active for a few years, and probably in charge of exporting tens of thousands of elephants . Any of these containers would have 100, 200, 300 elephants every time a container goes. So they had their own empire, and poachers they employ and their own methods. We tried to attack it in one of the countries their operation was installed in, in the Ivory Coast, and tried to find the heads there. We had a few leads and we were surveilling the major trafficker and collecting more information about him. And finally, with the Ivory Coast authority and a special unit called UCT (transnational organized crime unit) we finally managed to arrest this one trafficker, the person who was in charge of all of this operation, or at least the Ivory Coast station of this operation.

I managed to get a lot more information from him to try to take us to other countries and also assist in arrests in Asia. After that we managed to find more of his collaborators and his operations. The first one arrested was Vietnamese. We managed to arrest another Vietnamese and a Chinese and some others who were helping them. In total, now five traffickers, an entire trafficking ring out there with pangolin scales and with ivory and others.

But what was interesting for people to understand was how criminal the ivory trade is, how much organized crime we’re talking about, Mafia-like kind of activities. In this ring, we’re continuing to investigate six different illegal activities. For example, they were carrying – we got to seize four illegal firearms. There was one investigation on small arms illegal trade in circulation and how they got that. And we have another full investigation on their drug-related activities. They wanted to have a farm of marijuana and other kinds of drugs that they could export to Europe from the Ivory Coast. They were connected to three different tax havens as they were doing money laundering. So there’s a financial investigation going into all these activities of money laundering.

But maybe the more kind of shocking one for people, and the more affecting for me, was that they were trafficking women for prostitution in China. So basically they took girls from the Ivory Coast and moved them with fake passports to China, where they were probably held and their passports taken from them, where they were held against their will, to be prostituted in China. We are currently trying to reach out to those victims, and we have found some of the victims and are trying to rescue those victims.

So here is an example of criminal wildlife syndicating and what it means and what our work means, because some people think about wildlife trafficking in terms of poaching and poachers. We don’t deal with that level. We deal with the level of the traffickers, the international traffickers that are actually managing this, as a mafia, dealing with hundreds of poachers, and distributing not one or two elephants, but tens of thousands of elephants. Our main work is to try to locate and take down these families, these mafias, in order to protect Africa’s disappearing wildlife.

DJ: Thank you for all that. We have five or six minutes left. I know this is a longer question, but now that you are gaining these successes, how is the local support for your work? Are you having to fight a lot of the local people? Is it mixed? Are they supportive? How does that run?

OD: Well, when you say “local people”… We are now, as EAGLE, as you mentioned in the beginning; we are a community of activists. And most of these activists are local activists. We work in nine different countries where we have stable work, and we collaborate with many, many other countries across the world. But in each one of these countries, we are based on local activism. People who are Africans, that love their country, patriots. They want their country to be better. They want things to change and they want to protect their own wildlife natural heritage. So when you talk about local people, first of all what I see are activists. All of this community is communities of local people. If you’re talking about the police forces, they’re wildlife forces. If you’re talking about the bigger system, the fight still remains. It’s a constant fight and it’s a fight against corruption at all different levels. And there are many backlashes and I would say that in some of those cases we had to fend off, in some of the cases where kingpins were concerned, we had to fend off ministers who were trying to get those traffickers released.

Corruption goes up and these are serious mafias, so many times we have to arrest police officers and put them in jail. We have to get wildlife officers arrested and get them to jail, even high officials. Whether it is a general or whether it is a colonel, an ex-minister, a director of wildlife offices; these are people that we had to put in jail. Obviously these actions have backlashes, so this fight I would say is a constant fight. It gets easier with time, mostly because our local activists become stronger and more experienced, learning to expect some of these backlashes and learning to fight them at a higher level. But it’s a constant fight.

DJ: I’m sorry about that last question. I said it poorly. You answered it great. I said it poorly because I wasn’t meaning to imply the activists are not local. Here, I’ve done a lot of activism against deforestation. The activists fighting the deforestation were all local too, but the general population in a logging town will quite often end up hating us, even though we’re all local as well. That’s all I was getting at.

OD: I would say if you look at the general public, first, the general public in this country is not participating in this illegal trafficking. It’s not a general issue of behavior. In fact, many of these traffickers, the bigger ones, are foreigners. I think that in many cases we have good examples of how the public was captivated by the spirit of those activists, by what it means. And many of them are charismatic and can express themselves well. That has been the most successful. And I think the message that people were getting was not just about wildlife, but mainly about change.

I’ll give you an example. I was talking on a radio show in Cameroon many years back. It was just before an election. Th election was not free and fair at that time. And I was talking about that corruption in NGO’s and corruption in the nonprofit world, and all of a sudden somebody’s calling, because it was a talk show where people call in, and somebody calls in and says “You know, you need to put these guys who are fighting for wildlife, put them on our elections to observe them and we’ll have real elections.” The funny thing was that this was a state-run radio station, so the broadcaster was immediately turning off the phone and was afraid that soldiers would come to take him because definitely that was not a good thing for the president.

But it was very telling. What it told was that people always underestimate the change they can make. And by doing that the public showed that they made the connection. They realize that if change is possible in one point, in one sector, in one part of their lives, change is possible everywhere. You see, change is very catching. Change is very dangerous in that way. Because it shows the possibilities. It shows how easy it is to make a difference. That is one of the things that is most fulfilling for me, understanding that one ripple of change can cause many other chain effects. One ripple can continue and create more and more change. Not just in wildlife, not just in human rights or not just in democracy. And that’s, for me, the path of activism and that’s what it means.

DJ: This would be a wonderful place to end, but I have one quick question, which is: How can people who do not live in Africa – most of the audience for this is going to be Europe, the United States, Australia – how can they help you in your work? As well as following your advice and doing the local work, how can they help you?

OD: My first answer for it is a more general one in saying: Well, you know what? You can make a difference anywhere. It doesn’t have to be in Africa. It doesn’t have to be specifically on these specific species. It can be anywhere, because we’re all pissed off about something. Just cross that line from being pissed off to actually trying something. Just trying to make one step towards making a small difference and see how it works out. And that would help us, because that’s what we are all about, asking people to make those steps towards activism.

The narrower answer would be that wherever you’re at, open your eyes, go on the net, try to see if you see anything being sold as ivory. Anything being sold as a skin, a skull. Many of those animals are arriving through the illegal wildlife trade. Sometimes just small pieces of the picture, just one piece of ivory you’ve seen somewhere in a shop may connect us to far bigger criminal organizations that supply them. So we are relying many times on the public to investigate. Take some time and dig into things. Many times we’ve gotten tips from people who are just passionate and said “I just continued looking. I just realized that it exists and I just dug into it and looked more on the web, looked on the Internet and found something.” And many times it leads to a big arrest, so that can also be of great help.

DJ: Well thank you so much for your work. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Ofir Drori. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.





George Wuerthner 02.11.18




(Sound of western chorus frogs)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is George Wuerthner. He is the former Ecological Projects Director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology. He is an ecologist and wildlands activist. He has published 38 books on environmental issues and natural history including such environmentally focused books as Welfare Ranching, Wildfire, Thrillcraft, Energy and most recently Protecting the Wild. Today we talk about the erosion of wilderness protections.

Although we haven’t talked in six months, so I’m wondering if your 38 books is up to 43 or 47 by now.

GW: No, it’s not. I’ve been mostly focusing on writing editorials and essays.

DJ: Okay, so the world goes six months without a book by you. We should stop the presses.

GW: Right, right.

DJ: I’m saying that because your work is so fantastic and I love that you are so hard-working.

GW: Thank you.

DJ: So today I want to talk about something that most people have not probably heard about, which is that last December 13, the US House Natural Resources Committee passed HR-1349I, the Mountain Bikes and Wilderness Bill. So can you talk about this, about what this is, why is this bad, and what is the larger aim of this particular push?

GW: Sure. So what this bill would do is it would authorize all the federal agencies that have wilderness; which includes the Forest Service, the BLM, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service; to evaluate their lands that are presently part of the wilderness system created by the 1964 Wilderness Act, to assess the trails that might be available and could be used by mountain bikes and would authorize them to open up those trails to mountain biking. It would also encourage the agencies to basically encourage mountain biking as well. And by that, maybe modifying trails or helping create new trails in wilderness that could be ridden by mountain bikes.

To step back; the mountain biking community is divided on this issue, which is good to see. The International Mountain Biking Association, which is the largest mountain biking group in the country, is opposed to this bill. Their position is that they support existing wilderness and feel that bikes would be inappropriate there. The people pushing this are a smaller offshoot of mountain bikers who have created what they call the Sustainable Trails Association, and they are sort of the “expert” mountain bikers, the aggressive mountain bikers. Because a lot of trails that they seek to ride in wilderness areas, as well as elsewhere, are not things that a normal average person on a mountain bike could handle. So it’s a smaller subset of mountain bikers that’s pushing for this.

And the problem – there are many – there’s the more immediate problem of are mountain bikes appropriate in a lot of places, including wilderness? That’s the first issue. And the second issue is who is supporting this in Congress? Well, it’s being supported by some of the most anti-conservation, anti-environmentalist congressmen and senators. And so you have to say well why are they so anxious to get mountain biking in places like wilderness areas? Including Secretary of the Interior Zinke who is one of them who has come out saying we need to have more bikes allowed in these areas. So that raises a red flag for me, because I think that this is more than about mountain biking. It’s a way to weaken the intention of the Wilderness Act and then open up discussion, and then maybe eventually open up wilderness areas to many other forms of transportation, because after mountain bikers are permitted then you have an argument saying then why don’t we allow, for example, dirt bikes? Or why don’t we allow hovercraft? Or why don’t we allow jet skis? There are a lot of things and recreational machines out there about which people might then argue it’s unfair that they’re excluded when mountain bikes are allowed.

Now this gets back to some of the misinformation from the people at the Sustainable Trails Coalition. They have said that the original Wilderness Act, created in 1964, did not specifically exclude mountain bikes, which is true, partly because there was no such thing as a mountain bike in 1964. But what it did do is it said that no mechanical transport is allowed. And they said one of the purposes of the Wilderness Act is to reduce mechanization and the use of mechanized access into wildlands. So it specifically said no mechanical transport. Some of the bicyclists say “Well, it didn’t say bicycles.” Well, it didn’t say you couldn’t use a jet ski, or a snowmobile or a whole lot of other things. It didn’t say you can’t use a game cart. Game carts are also mechanical transport.

DJ: It also didn’t say that you can’t use tiger tanks, or Sherman tanks.

GW: (laughing) That’s right. Bulldozers. So they didn’t specifically list a lot of these things, so the fact that they didn’t list it doesn’t mean that it isn’t excluded, because it did say no mechanical transport. So that’s one of the myths. A second sort of false argument that I often hear from proponents is that mountain bikes are not as destructive of these trails as, say, horses, which are permitted under the Wilderness Act. And there are two responses to that. One is that horses were around at the time of the Wilderness Act and had been for a long time, and part of the Wilderness Act’s language is to encourage primitive means of access. People have been riding horses for thousands of years. And the second part of it is that even if you can argue that horses might do more damage to trails, which is true in some places, that doesn’t mean things are improved by also allowing mountain bikes. In other words, just because you have one activity that may not be as good as you might like or might result in some damage, it doesn’t mean adding another activity that also can cause damage is appropriate.

So that’s a second problem with it. A third problem that I see is sort of more ecological and that is that mechanical transport, whether it’s a mountain bike or any other mechanical attribute, allows you to traverse areas faster and get to more remote areas. And part of the reason why people such as myself support the designation of wilderness is that it creates more remote habitat for sensitive species. It provides a place where wildlife that might not mingle well with people has some refuge. And part of that refuge is just created by sheer distances. So if you can traverse a ten mile trail in an hour or an hour and a half, and it might take somebody hiking two or three or four hours to do that same trail, you shrink the value of that conservation area. And so that’s a problem.

And then there’s sort of a philosophical issue here too, and that is, again, another thing that the Wilderness Act attempts to do is to get people to sort of slow down, notice their environment, and to have a greater connection to nature. And if you’ve ever ridden a bike, and I have a mountain bike and I ride it, you don’t take your eyes off the trail. You’re just focused on what’s right in front of you, because it’s very difficult to avoid having a crash if you’re looking around. So the speed is not good. And that speed also has impacts on other users in the same way that snowmobiles and cross country skiers don’t usually get along. A mountain bike comes down a trail fast and suddenly comes around a bend and you can have accidents with hikers, and also horses are very skittish about mountain bikes. So you might also have accidents that way. It creates a more tense environment in these areas.

And one other aspect of it is that a lot of the people who are advocating for this are more interested in claiming they rode this bike to this peak or whatever. “Bragging rights” I guess is a way to say it. And of course that’s evolved with a lot of people in a lot of different activities. I’m proud of the fact if I hike 15 or 20 miles in a day. I tell my friends about it, of course. But it still seems to be that is a more dominant rationale for the mountain biking.

I did a recent survey of mountain bike magazines, and every one of the covers shows some guy – if you look at the iconology of those guys, they’re all wearing shirts with the labels of different companies on them. They’ve got helmets and goggles and they look for all intensive purposes like dirt bikers and they’re always halfway in the air. And they have things like “Conquer the mountain” and this whole idea of domination seems to be part of the more aggressive mountain bike community mindset. So that in itself, again, it’s a philosophical thing but that’s one of the things we’re trying to counter with wilderness, is to get away from this idea of domination. To have restraint and humility. And those are the values that are achieved, or are at least the desired outcome of people having a wilderness experience.

And finally, the Wilderness Act doesn’t really say much about recreation, and so this is not about preserving recreational opportunities per se. It’s about protecting wilderness and wildlands. The wildness is the primary purpose of the Wilderness Act. It’s not about who gets to do what recreational activities on these lands. So that’s why that bill is a threat, ultimately, because I think that it changes the whole ambience and goals that were set aside by the original Wilderness Act and creates an opportunity, and this gets back to who’s sponsoring it, for the people who are interested in degrading or reducing environmental laws, regulations and so forth to open up these lands to other uses. And eventually it’ll be fine to have bulldozers, recreational bulldozing in wilderness, right? Why shouldn’t we? Everybody has the right to their kind of recreation.

I’m being somewhat absurd there, but it’s not beyond the pale that that wouldn’t happen. So that’s the problem with this particular bill. But I would also say that I see it as a bigger threat beyond just the existing wilderness. Because what we’re seeing all around the west, and probably in the east coast too but I’m more familiar with the west, is happening with areas that have been set aside, or at least recognized as potential new wilderness areas. For example, you have wilderness study areas that aren’t designated by Congress as wilderness yet, but have been set aside where they have to maintain their wilderness values. And a lot of the federal agencies haven’t done much, if anything, to exclude mountain biking from those areas. That means that they then get a constituency utilizing those areas who then become vocal opponents to that ever being set aside as wilderness.

So, for example, in Montana, there was a bill created in 1977, called Senate Bill 393 that set aside, I believe at the original time, about ten roadless areas that were supposed to be protected as wilderness study areas, for future designation as wilderness. And most of those areas haven’t been dealt with one way or another. And recently, to their credit, for example, the Bitterroot National Forest had two of these wilderness study areas on the national forest. They had the Blue Joint Wilderness Study Area and the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area. And they determined that mountain biking in these areas was inappropriate. Before this mountain bikes had been using the areas, so now you have this group of mountain bikers who are saying “You’re taking away my recreational opportunity to go into the Sapphire or the Blue Joint.” It’s going to make it much harder to get those areas designated wilderness.

And the same thing is happening with another proposal in this area, south of Bozeman, called the Gallatin. Its original name was the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, but it’s the Gallatin Range, and again, because of existing mountain bike use that has built up in the area, a lot of the mountain bikers are opposed to wilderness. The original wilderness study area was 155,000 acres and the Forest Service is doing its plan, and it’s come out with a recommendation of only 83,000 acres. And then they cut off a big area called the Buffalo Horn, calling it a backcountry area, so that mountain bikers could continue to use it. And that area – if there is any area in the Gallatin Range that has ecological importance, that is the place. It’s used by a lot of grizzly bears, it’s a place bison could use to colonize coming out of Yellowstone Park, it’s got wolverine, it’s got migrating elk. It’s a fabulous area. So if you’re interested in conserving biodiversity you should be supporting wilderness for that area. And yet, and this is where it gets even more slippery, is a lot of the conservation groups in Montana have tried to have collaborative talks with mountain bikers, and they’re not supporting wilderness for the Buffalo Horn either because of the strong mountain biking opposition.

So this is the problem I see going forward, where the mountain bike community is not usually supportive of wilderness, and the ones that are, are usually overshouted by those who oppose it. One more example is there’s another wilderness study area in Wyoming near Jackson called the Palisades Wilderness Study Area. And recently Congressman Cheney from Wyoming has introduced legislation to open up that area to mountain biking, again because the aggressive mountain biking community in Jackson feels like they are being excluded from that area. So it’s a growing problem and I fear that we’re going to have a much more difficult time getting designated wilderness because of this constituency, designation which a lot of the environmental groups seem to love to oppose, probably in all likelihood because many of these so-called wilderness advocates ride mountain bikes themselves and don’t necessarily like to see these areas closed.

But it’s strange to me that in this day and age, going back to Montana as an example, you know 20 years ago the wilderness advocacy groups were much more aggressive about supporting maximum wilderness acres for wilderness designation and now they’re shy about it. You had opponents, logging companies, mining companies, all these other things, in the past. It should be easier than ever before to get wilderness designated and they seem to be capitulating before they even get started.

DJ: So I want to ask you about the importance of wilderness and the momentum – you know, in 1964 they were able to get a law passed and by now, I almost never hear even a lot of environmental organizations talking about wilderness. So I want to go there in a second, but before I do that, there are three or four images that came to mind that I want to just say and then you can respond to these any way you want.

One of them is that my mom is elderly and functionally blind. She can see, but she doesn’t have great vision. And she has talked for years about how walking in a town she has almost been run over any number of times by bicyclists. And this is on a sidewalk. So I just wanted to throw that in, in terms of what you’re saying about how pedestrian/mountain biker interactions. And another thing I want to mention is that – there are a couple of things. One is I read this article in Wild Earth back in the 90’s that always stuck with me. I think about this almost every day when I walk through the forest. It was an article about going barefoot. And it was saying that when we put on shoes, as opposed to moccasins or going barefoot, we turn ourselves from a soft-padded mammal into a hooved mammal, in terms of our effect on the ground. And that’s always stuck with me. And then I think that when you go to a mountain bike, you’re moving that just one more step further in terms of compaction, in terms of crushing beings. And that leads to the third thing, and final thing I want to mention right now, which is that even if you walk along a bike path, you will still see crushed newts and lizards and all sorts of small beings who would have been less likely to be crushed by people walking.

So I’m just throwing those things out in terms of – compared to clearcutting, those are all small. But those are all still effects and real.

GW: Well, you’re absolutely right, and the speed factor is a big part of the problem. The thing is that if you’re an “environmental group” and you’re not supporting wilderness, you’re not supporting the gold standard. Wilderness, and in many cases national parks, are proven to be the most effective way to conserve habitat and biodiversity, and ecological processes. We can all recognize there are problems with these, mostly because we don’t have enough areas protected. As E.O. Wilson has come out recently, and the World Congress on protected areas and various other organizations that won’t come out in recognition that we ought to be protecting at least half of the earth. So when a conservation group comes up with less than that – I’ll give you one other example where non-bikers can compromise to proposal. The largest roadless area left in the Cascades, near Bend, Oregon – it’s called the Maiden Peak Roadless Area, and has been proposed for many years to be designated wilderness. And the Sierra Club came out with a proposal they call “Keep Waldo Wild,” referring to Waldo Lake, which this main peak is adjacent to. And the mountain bikers objected to including the peak in the proposal because some people ride up to the top of the main peak. And so, trying to be good guys, or more inclusive, the Sierra Club came up with a proposal that named it a conservation area or some other name like that. And ultimately that area is not going to be wilderness if their position gets carried forward.

To me it’s just unconscionable that the Sierra Club would not be advocating for wilderness for that area. So this is the kind of thing that’s going on as groups enter into these collaboratives. That’s part of the problem, but the other problem is if they’re being fooled into supporting measures that have less ecological certainty than what we get with wilderness designation. Again, wilderness is the gold standard and we should be, as environmentalists, trying to get as much designated wilderness as possible, not compromising on that right from the beginning and willing to take things off the table entirely or changing the designation to something less effective than “wilderness.”

DJ: This all makes me think of something that you and I have worked on independently and also spoken of together, which is a dreadful transformation of so much environmentalism away from being about wild places and wild things and toward basically trying to recreate.

Both you and I enjoy being in forests, no doubt. But it seems to me that if you’re looking at a wild place as someplace for someone to ride their bike, that is a fundamentally different perspective than looking at it primarily as a refuge for grizzly bears and for various beetles who don’t like to cross open spaces.

GW: Exactly. I know you’re the same way too. I support wilderness designation for a whole lot of places I’ll never get to. And I do it based on the philosophical basis that we need more protected lands. It’s the way we pay our debt to the earth. We all have benefited from exploitation of the earth for a whole host of reasons. We need to – any place that can possibly qualify as wilderness should be protected as wilderness. That’s one of the best laws that we have in this country for protecting lands, and it’s one of our strongest laws. As you know, one can make all these economic arguments: it’s good for your local economy, it’s good to provide clean water for people and so forth. So there are all these human dimensions to it, but ultimately I think that some of us do this because we feel it’s the right thing to do for everything else living on earth and all the other creatures that need a home. And we need to share the planet with these creatures and we need to maintain to the greatest degree possible the ecological processes, many of which cannot operate in places that are actively managed for something like timber production or something like that, to allow those ecological processes that have shaped evolution to continue.

And that’s one of the values, and probably the biggest value of wilderness, not whether I hike there or anybody else can, you know, ski there, float a canoe, or whatever. Although I think that those are appropriate activities within limits. But we don’t need to add to the recreation impact. And people have to be aware, even with recreation, though, as you point out, that impact may not be as severe as would happen with a clearcut or livestock grazing, but there are still at some point cumulative impacts.

One of the things, again, about wilderness is that it tends to promote restraint and a different way of looking at the landscape, and I think that those are important values that we need to maintain and that we need to expand on. Wilderness helps us, at least some of us, to see a different relationship with the earth, and that’s something we need to get more widespread across our whole population.

DJ: So I want to tell a brief wilderness story and then I want to ask a question about the Wilderness Act itself. The brief story is: I remember one time being in the Rawah Wilderness Area in Colorado and I was the only person there except for a wilderness ranger, a federal employee who had the delightful job of hiking wilderness areas to make sure people weren’t camping too near streams. Seems like a pretty good job. Anyway, so I was having this wonderful time until I was sitting up near this lake, and all of a sudden I could hear this huge party of people shouting and yelling and just being really obnoxious. And I didn’t have as good a time after that. And my point is there was something, I don’t know, there was something, it almost felt like a bunch of people coming in and screaming and yelling and getting drunk in a church or something. I don’t know what point I’m trying to make, exactly. I just know that making the access – and you and I both agree that wheelchairs are allowed and should be allowed, insofar as there are paths, of course. So it wasn’t that, but there was a certain rowdiness – I don’t know. Is this meaning anything to you? Do you want to take this anywhere, or do you want me to just go on?

GW: No, no; I understand what you’re saying. And that is one of the things, that if you have humility and reverence for the landscape you wouldn’t be so noisy, and so forth. And that’s the problem that I see with mountain biking, for example, is that it promotes this idea of conquering and domination and so forth. Just go on line and Google mountain biking magazines, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. That’s what all the articles are about, and what the Cutlers are about. And then Google “wilderness scene with person” and there will be somebody sitting quietly near a serene lake. It’s a whole different ambience and goal that is being promoted there. And I think that that is an important difference, and distinction, that’s not recognized, of course, by the mountain bikers themselves for the most part, because they don’t seem to be aware of it.

The other part of it, too, that I think this gets at, is what are we trying to do by accommodating every single use? Because somebody bought a bicycle, they have a right to use it on public lands? I’m not saying we should eliminate this use on all public lands. But I could buy a bulldozer and make the same argument. I’ve got a bulldozer now, so I should be allowed to use it. Well, no. Not necessarily. There are things on public lands that we tend to limit. There are a lot of parks, for example – you mentioned being loud and drinking. There are a lot of county and city parks where you can’t just go and have a big party and get drunk. It’s against the law because that seems inappropriate in the park, like it’s inappropriate in a church. It’s inappropriate in a lot of these places.

We recognize that there are places where that kind of approach and behavior serves as an invasion of what the area is supposed to be promoting. And I make the same argument about mountain biking generally. It promotes a sort of aggressive worldview and that worldview is not appropriate in our wilderness areas. And as I tried to say, I don’t think it’s appropriate in any place that’s being seriously considered for wilderness because I don’t want to see these areas not get their due as protected wilderness, via allowing a use to get established there that would disqualify it for wilderness protection.

I hear from people all the time: “Well, mountain bikers could be our allies.” Well, I’m not looking for allies if the only reason they’re supporting my position is for their own selfish interest. I see that as weak allies and ones that are not going to be good in the end. I’m happy to try to convince mountain bikers that wilderness is a good thing, and it helps if they’ll recognize that and why it’s inappropriate for them to be mountain biking there. I’d be happy to call them allies then. But not just to say “Well, if we accommodate your use will you support this area for some sort of protected status?” That’s a slippery slope, in my mind, and may very well end up impoverishing our whole conservation system as a result.

DJ: I have yet another question, before we go to the Wilderness Act of 1964. Living in Del Norte, which is extremely conservative and anti-environmental for the most part, one of the arguments I hear all the time against anybody who wants to take out roads or to prevent future roads from being pushed in is that we’re a bunch of elitists because we want to prevent people from experiencing – I mainly hear this about getting offroad vehicles off of land. They say that we’re elitist because we want to deny people access. So because – I’m sure you get this all the time, too. How do you respond to that, regarding this particular issue?

GW: Well, I start out by saying that only 2.7% of the lower 48 states is designated wilderness, for one thing. And even if you took all the remaining land that possibly might qualify, you might get up to 5 or 6% of the lower 48 states as designated wilderness. Which means that the vast majority of the country is already available for people who want to ride bicycles or motorcycles or snowmobiles or whatever, including the majority of public lands, I might add. But also a lot of private lands that would never qualify as wilderness. So if you’re talking about compromising, we passed that point a long time ago. That’s why I say every last acre that could possibly qualify as wilderness should be protected, because we have already developed the vast majority of the American landscape. And it is available to all those people who want to ride their dirt bikes or ORV’s or jet skis or snowmobiles, or ride their mountain bikes or whatever.

We’re just talking about the last little drips and drabs and saying can’t we just set those aside? I mean, is that asking too much? I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all, and especially if you take the idea that some ecologists are promoting, that we need to protect upwards of 50% of Earth from resource development. How are we going to get there if we only have 2.7% of the lower 48 states? That means a whole lot more area is needed to come under some sort of conservation guise, and certainly the first place to start is all the roadless areas that could qualify as wilderness. And then from there, maybe the passive recovery of areas that have been previously exploited, like, for example, in New England a lot of that area was cleared for farming and it’s grown back into forest and a lot of animals that were extirpated have recolonized it. So that’s a passive recovery, and that’s another way we get that 50%.

DJ: So we have about 10-13 minutes left, and before we wind down I want to get to a question that for me goes to the heart of a lot of this, which is how the hell did the Wilderness Act ever get passed in the first place? What was different? Because I can’t imagine. In my adult lifetime, I have seen nothing but erosion for the most part. Of the Endangered Species Act, of the Clean Water Act, of the Wilderness Act. I’ve seen erosions. I’ve not seen the environmental movement be able to mount any sort of great offensives where we had great things happen. What made that happen?

GW: Well, there were a couple of things going on. I’ll give you a quick history. The Wilderness Society was formed in 1935 and the membership of that society was a pretty illustrious list of some of the top biologists and wildlands thinkers of the time. Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Olaus Murie among others. And I might add that all of them had had extensive personal experience in wildlands too. So they were passionate about protecting wildlands. And they formed the Wilderness Society.

The Wilderness Society took 1935 until 1964 to get the Wilderness Act, but their goal was to set up a wilderness system. There were 66 versions of the Wilderness Act written and introduced between the early 1950’s and 1964 when it passed. With many compromises along the way, in fact. Because the original version that was being advocated by the Wilderness Society ironically back then would have protected all the roadless lands left in the United States, which unfortunately didn’t make it through. But one of the things was, I think that the people behind this recognized that wildlands were being lost yearly. Bob Marshall, who formed the Wilderness Society; I’m going to paraphrase this because I don’t have it right in front of me; said “We don’t want any stragglers as members of the Wilderness Society. We don’t want people whose first instinct is to compromise, because too much good wilderness has been lost already by those kinds of folks.”

And it’s ironic that the Wilderness Society today, I wish they would be following their founder Bob Marshall’s philosophy, because they’re some of the first ones who will compromise on this in many cases. So anyway, we got that through and then I think there was a period up until the 50’s and the 60’s where you had all sorts of activism on all sorts of things. That’s when the Civil Rights Act was passed. That’s when the Vietnam war was occurring and there was opposition. And I think that people of that era, though of course there were a lot of people harmed in conflicts and so forth, over civil rights and Vietnam, etc.; they found that by being politically active they could change the world, so to speak. And I think that people have gotten more passive today and maybe haven’t had that experience. That’s my only theory. I don’t think you can say people were smarter then or had anything different that way. But they had a passion for protecting wildlands and I think maybe today a lot of that passion has been lost, and so people are kind of less willing to put their lives on the line, so to speak, whether physically or just emotionally and philosophically, to promote this idea of protecting wildlands.

DJ: So now we have about six or seven minutes left. Two questions, to sort of wind down. One of them would be what can people do to oppose this particular bill? And then, more importantly, I think; what can people do, no matter where they are, to actively promote both increase in wilderness areas and a disallowing of weakening of protection of wilderness areas?

GW: Okay, well there are two different answers. I would say the most important thing you can do is contact your congressional representative. I actually talked to a congressman last week and he told me “Look, you don’t have to know a whole lot of detail. All I need to do is hear from you, that you don’t support this or you do support that particular legislation. You don’t have to go into the details.” So you don’t have to be an expert about arguing why mountain bikes might not be appropriate or what the Wilderness Act originally said or anything else. All you have to do is write your congressmen or senators and say “If this legislation comes forward, please oppose it.” And at the same time, you should also write to your local newspaper, because one thing the congressional representatives do is they look at the local newspaper for letters to the editor and they figure that every letter to the editor is equivalent to a couple hundred other people. So if you’re going to write your congressman in the first place, or call them, send a short note to the local newspaper about that also. Again, you don’t have to know the intimate details. You just have to have the general idea in mind and express that.

The second part of what you were talking about, about how we could get more wilderness, and so forth – one of the ways that people should be aware of right now is many of these national forests around the country are going through what they call the “forest planning process.” And these forest plans are supposed to be renewed every 10 years. They often tend to get dragged out to every 20 years or more. And in those forest plans, one of the things that they have to do is evaluate any roadless areas for potential as wilderness. For example, the Custer Gallatin Forest in Montana just came out with its draft plan, and I went through it and it had all these areas that mostly they were recommending against wilderness, a few areas where they were recommending some wilderness. And I just encourage people to get involved, and if you know of a roadless area around you, or several; when the Forest Service is taking comment, write in.

One of the things with a lot of these federal agencies – there are a lot of good people who work for federal agencies, actually, who are probably sympathetic, at least to some of the positions that you and I are discussing. But they need the political cover to do the right thing. And if, for example, 500 people were to write in on the Custer Gallatin Plan saying “we want more wilderness here and there,” the Forest Service could – it may not, but it could then have the political cover to maybe expand its wilderness recommendations. So that’s an example. The other is to, of course, vote. We know that elections have consequences. Right now we have one of the most anti-environmental administrations that I’ve seen in my whole life. I used to think that James Watt and Reagan were bad. But they were nothing compared to what we have now. And so you have to try to get people elected that are going to be supportive of protecting land and keeping environmental laws intact.

One of the other bills out there – this is just an aside, but this whole border wall thing having to do with immigration – there are a number of bills that would allow Homeland Security to build roads, put in helicopter landing pads, all sorts of surveillance stuff within 100 miles of the border, on all the borders, 100 miles south of the Canadian border and 100 miles north of the Mexican border. So what’s in that area? Well, in terms of wilderness alone, there are 32 million acres of designated wilderness that falls within that 100 mile zone, including places like the North Cascades National Park, Olympic National Park, Glacier National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Glacier Bay National Park, Wrangell Mountains National Park. And then down on the southern border, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipes National Park, etc. That bill would waive 36 or 38, something like that, environmental regulations including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, etc.

These other bills are a real threat to wildlands too. People have to start paying attention to them. One place you can keep up on at least the threats directly to wilderness is a group called Wilderness Watch in Missoula, Montana. You can go on their site, but they list all these legislations that are a threat to wilderness. That would be a good place to start if anybody’s interested.

DJ: Well thank you so much for all of your constant work in defense of the wild. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been George Wuerthner. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

David Pilgrim 02.04.18





Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is David Pilgrim. He is a professor, orator, and human rights activist. He is best known as the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum­, a ten thousand piece collection of racist artifacts located at Ferris State University, which uses objects of intolerance to teach about race, race relations, and racism. He is the author of Understanding Jim Crow. His most recent book is Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors: Stories from the Jim Crow Museum.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program again.

DP: Well thank you for having me. I am freezing here in Michigan, but I have very much looked forward to this conversation all day.

DJ: Well thank you so much. I have, too. So, I was wondering if we could start with, for people who didn’t hear the first interview, what is Jim Crow, and what is the Jim Crow Museum – like, fifteen minutes on this. What is the Jim Crow Museum and what is the importance of having a collection of these racist artifacts?

DP: Well, Jim Crow – the popular version of the story is that Thomas Rice, an unsuccessful white actor, either saw an elderly African-American or a young one, in either case one who had problems with walking. He saw that person and heard them singing a little ditty, and saw them with their physical condition, trying to dance. He in turn took what he saw, embellished it, and created this blackface character, which appeared on many American stages and quite frankly made him very wealthy. He even traveled to Europe. Of course, him having the Jim Crow persona onstage meant that there would be imitators. It wasn’t very long – what he started, what he did in the late 1820’s, early 1830’s; within five or six years there were enough performers that the minstrel show had become the first real form of mass entertainment in the U.S.

Now having said all of that, I’m not sure how much of that is folklore and how much of it’s true. I spent way too much of my time in old newspapers, and certainly he did not coin the term “Jim Crow.” What he did do was to popularize not just the song, but the image of the ragged-dressed, buffoonish African-American, or at that time, “Negro,” or, forgive my language, a “nigger” on the stage. And it wasn’t very long before “Jim Crow” became a slur against African-Americans.

I used to say that it was by the 1880’s that “Jim Crow” had become not just a name of a stage performer, but a synonym for the racial hierarchy that existed in this country. And after that first book was written, I found a reference from Frederick Douglass, which was in the 1830’s, where he refers – he’s very upset about being forced to sit in what he called the “Jim Crow car.” I don’t know how common that was. I don’t know if it caught on, but much sooner than most writers have claimed, at least one African-American was calling a kind of segregation, in this case travels on a train, “Jim Crow.”

So what is it we do? Well, the U.S. has a lot of African-American studies museums. What we have not had was a museum that focused primarily, though not exclusively, on racism. So years and years and years ago I started collecting. I think most people that have followed my story know that I broke the first piece that I purchased. It was a mammy-type piece that I purchased down in Mobile, which is where I was living as an eleven, twelve, thirteen-year-old. I don’t remember the second piece or the third piece or the fourth piece, but I remember always having – I think early on I was just fascinated with almost the repulsiveness of the pieces. And keep in mind that – I mean, I grew up in an all-black, all-brown section of Mobile near Pritchard, Alabama, and so the stuff that I saw, a lot of it was in the homes of black and brown people. And so I just started collecting and spent an entire life collecting. And I have to be honest with you, for most of my life I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. It wasn’t probably until I got to graduate school that I had a vague idea of creating some type of learning facility. I don’t think I would have been as bold as to claim that I wanted to exhibit at that point. But I wanted a place where people could look at the objects, and we could talk about the objects, which is actually what has happened today.

So right now, we have – you know, we’re receiving, because of the attention we’ve gotten on the Internet, we’re receiving hundreds of pieces each year. So now, instead of ten or eleven thousand pieces, we’re probably up over fifteen thousand. And at some point, I’m going to have to make a decision, which seems weird, given that fact that I spent so much of my life wishing I had more money so that I could buy some of this material. But we may be getting to the point where I may actually have to say no to us receiving in-kind donations.

People come to the museum from all over the world. We’ve had people come from Australia, from Queensland, looking at us as a template for a museum they wanted to build that dealt with aboriginalia, which was the term they used. That was really, really flattering. But most of the people that come are individuals or couples or small groups that are traveling through Michigan. We’re in the metropolis of Big Rapids. I joke that people ask me “Where’s Big Rapids?” I say “Well, you know, I think we’re about 1050 miles north of Miami.” And if they don’t laugh, I know they’re not really paying attention to me.

But we have people come from all over. I truly believe we’re having really good conversations about race relations and racism. The approach we use more often than not is a visual thinking strategies approach. This might strike your listeners as odd, because visual thinking strategies are typically used by people working with elementary school students. But for us it works really well. It’s not rocket science. We bring in people, we position them in front of objects, and we ask them “What is it you see?” And so one person looking at the kitchen with the hundreds of “mammy” type, you know, Aunt Jemima, Dinah, syrup and all these pieces – one person sees a kind of nostalgia, and I don’t mean this to be facetious. It brings back good memories of times that they spent with their grandparents, or with their parents. And then someone else sees the vestiges of slavery and segregation. I think that’s the value of the museum, is that people who see objects very, very differently are put in situations where they have to interact with each other. For me, it’s difficult, because I like visual thinking strategies as a concept, but the activist in me just wants to start screaming “You know damned well that’s not what you see.” And just lose my mind.

But I don’t. (laughing) At least not at the front end of the discussions.

So that’s what we do. I just want to add one little thing, which is that we are vaguely a collection of racist and segregation-based memorabilia or objects. But, beginning in 2012, we moved into the larger facility. We added a couple of sections. One is on civil rights. One is on African-American achievements. One is on African-American artists using their art to deconstruct racial imagery. For years, I fought against adding those sections, because, just to cut to the chase, we’re not an African-American studies museum, or a general studies museum with a focus on racism. We’re a racism museum. But I had enough thoughtful people talk to me, and explain to me, that racism is not just what it does. Or, if you’re going to tell the story of racism, you should not just tell the story of what it does. You should talk about how people respond to, resist, and overcome. And it’s kind of interesting that I have started, I don’t know when this started, probably with our most recent election. I started talking of the museum as a space of resiliency.

Now, I could have always done that. But it just seems more relevant, or more important, to tell that story now.

Let’s all take a break. I’m sorry for that hour and a half answer.

DJ: No no no, it’s perfect. I loved your answer. And also, I – you don’t need my approval, certainly, but I just want to say that I think that given your material, and given the way you present it, that the – you called it the visual learning strategies, is that what it’s called?

DP: Well, you can. We called it “visual learning strategies.” I do it on the web also so in that case it’s virtual. But yeah, visual learning strategies, yes.

DJ: I think that given the strength of the material you have, that that’s absolutely brilliant that you do it that way. Because the material – I’m holding Watermelons, Nooses and Straight Razors as we’re speaking, and the material is just so strong.

DP: Yeah.

DJ: And the hatred of black people by white people, and by the culture at large, is just so evident. It’s like, you don’t have to say a word, because every single quote and every single postcard makes it clear for you. And it’s just – I just want to grab a couple, like, random things. I’ll open to page 37, and here’s a line by H.L. Mencken, who was a very well-respected journalist.

DP: Very.

DJ: “The vast majority of people of their race are but two or three inches removed from gorillas. It will be a sheer impossibility for a long, long while to interest them in anything above pork chops and bootleg gin.”

Or Carl Sandburg, a very well-respected person. “Why do I always think of niggers and buck-and-wing dancing whenever I see watermelon?”

And those are, not visual obviously, but we have images to go along with all of those. I guess it’s a long-winded way of – this makes me think of a line by Andrea Dworkin, where she is talking about how women just don’t realize how much men in patriarchy hate them as a class. And I’m thinking, as I look at your books, as I read your books, as a white person, this is the thing that just overwhelms me, is like “My God, how much they are hated.” That’s one thing that hits me so hard. And the other thing that really hits me is a line that’s said by a friend of mine – and I’m going to shut up for a minute and you can take this anywhere you want.

DP: No, go on. I’m enjoying it.

DJ: There’s a line that an environmentalist friend says about why there is so much timber industry propaganda in the Pacific Northwest. He said “A lie is very expensive to maintain, but a truth you can just say. Lies, you’ve got to repeat them constantly.” And when I read your books I just keep thinking about how this lie that Africans are inferior just has to be pounded in, because it is a lie. And so – okay. I’m done now.

DP: First of all, the problem with talking with me, and my colleagues tell me this, is that I think and talk in footnotes. So I leave the record conversation and we call it my “there goes a squirrel” moment kind of thing. So I’ll give you an example of that. When you gave that quote about pork chops. Immediately where my brain went was that I probably spent a month debating whether or not to write a chapter on pork chops and black people, or fried chicken and black people. And eventually this, I didn’t write either one. And it’s pretty clear, in part because, with the watermelon, the chapter on watermelon, I could talk about the racializing of food. Where it becomes a shorthand way of saying that a people, you know, that they are dumb and lazy and lack ambition and whatever else. But before I did, started the research, I did not know that that was the time when the pork chop was actively competing as a racist symbol of African-American laziness again, lack of ambition and the like. So again, I have to try not to go down and get in the weeds all the time.

I do want to share with you a weird story, if it’s okay. I’m often asked: “Why do this?” And I certainly have other interests. I like eating, I like cooking, I like some sports, I like some entertainment. I like walking. I mean, I have other interests. And so I, some of my friends, they’re not meaning to be nasty or critical. They just, you know, say “Why do this?” I’ve gotten it a lot in a lifetime. So, late one night, I’m up and I’m reading these newspapers in these various archives on the Internet now. It’s amazing. I can pull up newspapers from the 1700’s, the 1800’s. And there’s a Motown commercial. I don’t know if it’s the 25th anniversary, or the 30th. Whatever. It was actually an infomercial. So it showed that it was the night Michael Jackson, who’s given credit for being the first person to do moonwalking, he wasn’t. But he does that, and the crowd goes crazy, and I’m in bed, and I look at the crowd and they’re disproportionately peoples of color. And you can’t judge folks’ socioeconomic status by looking at their clothes, but these were well-dressed people. Quite frankly, these were folk who looked like they’re part of what E. Franklin Frazier referred to as the “black bourgeoisie” years ago, right? And they’re all dancing and they’re all having fun, and I am not joking when I say this. That was a moment when I asked myself: “What the hell am I doing? Why don’t I just dance? Why am I not dancing?”

And then it went away. And I told that story a couple of times, and I think that, whether I dance or not, whether I eat, drink and be merry or not, new racist objects are still going to be made. Old images are going to morph into the present. When there’s a race-based incident in the U.S. there is a two-dimensional or a three-dimensional object created within a week. That’s going to happen whether I dance or not. And so the question is not: “Can I figure out a way to not just ignore this material weight the way many people do?” But can I do something different with it? Can I find a way to get people to look at this and in a more nuanced way, understand what we’ve been as a nation and what we are? And I don’t want to get super political here, but I will tell you this. Up until the last year and a half, or two years, when I travel the country, I would almost always include a statement that said “I believe that despite significant institutional systemic problems, structural problems, despite that, I believe that we are more democratic and more egalitarian than we have been as a nation.”

And I stopped saying that about sixteen months ago or so. Because, I tell you, I grew up in Alabama while George Wallace was the governor. And if I close my eyes, it’s like I just woke up again in Pritchard, Alabama; Mobile, Alabama with George Wallace the governor. I’m not trying to engage in hyperbole. I’m not saying the US has not made great changes. What I am saying is that progress is not linear. It is not. If you’re an activist, you’ve got to be vigilant. You gotta keep the train moving in that direction. I don’t remember the exact quote, but somebody said, I think it may have been in the Letter From Birmingham Jail, where Dr. King was talking about time. And folks saying to him “Just wait. Why are you taking such an urgent posture? Why don’t you just slow down a little maybe?” And you know, he’s talking about how people waited for 300 years, or 400 years. But he said something, you know, not to be a philosopher, I just think it’s profound. What he said is that time is neutral. And if we accept that, which, I don’t know what it would be to not accept that, it just seems so self-evident. If time is neutral, then what’s not neutral are the behaviors, the actions. The decisions made by people.

So whether I dance or not, or teach or not, these are challenges that exist, and so I just have to find a different time to dance.

DJ: Well, for what it’s worth, I am grateful that you dance in the way that you do.

DP: Why thank you! You know what? I think we have a kindred connection. I think a lot about what activism is. I came out of the Ohio State; they want me to say the Ohio State; where, if you were, if they saw that you were going to be an activist it was almost a little disappointment, if you understand what I mean. If you were in sociology, the idea was that we were supposed to do objective research and other folks could do whatever they wanted with that research, but we weren’t supposed to actually, and actively, try to change the nation and the world. Which made no freaking sense at all, because sociology as a field, you know, came from people that were trying to fix Chicago, trying to fix Boston, New York. So we had an activist tradition. Now, on the flip side of all that, I can’t count the number of my activist friends, my mentors, colleagues, friends and mentees, who are now burnt out. They just burn out. You have a pretty good idea what burnout looks like.

I have to have enough hope to keep doing the work, and I think that I will always have that. Because I just see so many people coming into the museum, and it’s not like a Saul on the road to Damascus kind of thing. I don’t even know if that happens. But there are people that come in there and they see something. And it’s often, in my mind, something very small. But they see something and it just, I’m trying not to use a cliché, and they keep popping into my head, so I’ll just say “when the light comes on.”

And they want to learn more, and they want to know more. And so as long as that keeps happening, you know, I think I can be hopeful.

DJ: Well, I think there’s that, and also, honestly, if you broke your first piece of Jim Crow memorabilia when you were eleven, twelve or thirteen?

DP: Yeah.

DJ: You have found your calling. You know?

It’s like, for me, I don’t really worry about burnout. Yes, I get very despairing, but I don’t worry about burnout because I am doing the things – the stuff I am writing is what I was born to do.

DP: Okay.

DJ: And it feels to me – I don’t know you, but from what you said, if you were doing this stuff when you were eleven, twelve, thirteen; it’s like, man, I can’t see you ever burning out.

A quick example. I was a high jumper in college, and my roommate on away track trips was a shot putter. And we used to just laugh because my legs were really strong. I was built for high jumping. But I couldn’t even pick up a shot put with one hand, much less throw it. So, I was doing what I was born to do physically that way. And he was doing what he was born to do.

And once again, I don’t know you. And I’m sorry to psychologize you, but it sounds to me like you are doing what you were born to do, or what you were put in the world to do. It sounds like you’re – am I wrong?

DP: No, I don’t think so, and I appreciate that. I don’t want to get too metaphysical here, but I do think that we go through what we go through in part so we can know what we know. Without, you know, some family drama, I would not have been raised down South. And I just happened to be raised down there right at the end, and by that I mean the bitter end, of Jim Crow. And so, you know, I got to be a part of the desegregation, which is what it was called. And the fights, and the brick throwing and all of that. So I got to see those things. And I do believe that that shaped me.

As a sociologist, I wouldn’t say I was born that way, but I’ve certainly been, you know there’s some soft determinism here; I’ve certainly been shaped. And I think it’s my work. It’s just the last couple of years that have been really, just frustrating is all.

Of course … we have a Facebook page and we just put up a story. Because we try to be contemporary. We put up a story about some – and I apologize. But it’s some designer, they had a little black kid and they made a reference to a “monkey” something on there. One of the people who works here put the story out. And almost immediately someone wrote in, in effect, that if you want to see real monkeys, you should look at so-and-so and some of her relatives. And so we sort of debated whether or not to take it down. And I was for leaving it up, because first of all, it shows the work that has to be done. I don’t think it’s an accident that that’s actually one of the chapters in the book. I learned a lot – I mean, I knew already before doing research that calling African-Americans monkeys and baboons and whatever was a slur. I just learned more about it than I had learned about it. The same thing with some of the other pieces. So I agree that, I think that at this point in my life I have enough will to make it to the end. And there certainly won’t be a shortage of work to do.

DJ: So I’m thinking … I’m loving everything you’re saying, and I would love to talk about the despair of the last couple of years, but there’s something else you said earlier, if you don’t mind, that I would like to go back to.

DP: Okay.

DJ: And that … as I’m reading your book, I’ve kept – and I’ve wondered this my whole life. What’s the deal with watermelon?

DP: (Laughs)

DJ: And then you have this line in there; this made me laugh out loud. “Black people represent 13% of the U.S. population, yet account for 11% of the watermelon consumption.” So it’s like: It’s not even true. And so it’s like … you had this great line earlier in the conversation today about … I don’t remember what you said, but … politicization of food? Was it?

DP: Yeah, the racializing of food.

DJ:The racializing of food. So can you talk about – I know it when I see it, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.

DP: Yeah. Well, obviously a watermelon has no inherent meaning. It can be a fruit, a vegetable, it can be just something that’s laying in a field that has no meaning at all. I think the best evidence suggests that although blacks and whites and browns and reds and yellows were all eating watermelon in this country, the negative association with black people and watermelons probably started after reconstruction. And that was one of the points I wanted to make, because after reconstruction you have; first of all you have a lot of angry white people in the U.S., especially in the South. And not just the deep South, but the South. And you’re not able to tell folks what to do. You have the creation of the Klan. We’d had Klan-like groups before that, but there’s these people wanting to re-enslave blacks. And there’s folks not sure. You talk about massive social change. Imagine going from a culture where people were enslaved to one where they’re not enslaved. And you do it in a short period of time. That is massive social change, and I don’t think it would be surprising if there were many whites who thought the world was coming to an end.

And so you got all this going on, and what you see, you see some black person eating a watermelon, or doing any of the things that free people do. Well, you get pissed off. And I think it was more just that it caught on, just as a symbol of, and one of the authors I read about, he talked about, you know, freedom food. And it just became a way to flip that, to make it something negative. And then it caught on, I think in part because you eat watermelons with your hands, because it’s kind of a, I don’t say a dirty fruit but it’s hard to eat it and be clean, depending on how you’re eating it. You can eat it sitting under a shady tree. It was almost perfect as propaganda to suggest that black people were lazy and didn’t want to work anymore. And once it caught on – and that was not the case, by the way, early on, as I said. Even the early years of the minstrel shows, that wasn’t true, and it wasn’t true during enslavement. We place that idea, we projected it backwards, in kind of a retrospective interpretation kind of way. So there are a lot of people today, where you ask them “When did the negative association of African-Americans with watermelon start?” They’ll go “Oh, that was during the first years of slavery.” Well, that’s probably not true. But it’s depicted that way in paintings. In prints, in cards. In songs, in jokes. In whatever.

But I picked that watermelon just to make the point that a racist society creates racist objects and racializes other objects. And so if you can racialize food, you can pretty much racialize anything. And that’s what happened. And by the way, watermelon is actually a good food. If there’s such thing as a bad food, I’m not sure. It’s a good food. And I also wanted to talk about how people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and James Baldwin – of course, everything tortured Baldwin, but you know how you have these civil rights, human rights, black power, whatever – and they wouldn’t be caught dead eating a watermelon in front of white people. I mean, that’s how strong, to this day, if you talk to African-Americans you’ll find some of them will say “No, I’m not comfortable eating watermelon in the presence of white people.” How insidious – how successful was that? Racializing this – well, I guess some people’d call it a fruit, some people call it a vegetable, but racializing it. So if you can racialize a watermelon, and not only can do it but did do it, then that gives us some clues as to how high your mountain was.

DJ: I’m going to mirror back to you, because I want to make sure I’m understanding. So part of the point is that if you can take an object that has nothing to do with race whatsoever, it is simply like you said, a melon in a field, and then turn that into a sign for racial inferiority and racial subjugation, then if you can do that, that is a signifier of how profound the underlying contempt is.

DP: You said it better than I did. That is exactly the case.

DJ: This is extraordinary. And, again, this is what your work does. This is what I want to say to readers, that is what your work is just so brilliant at.

DP: I appreciate that. You know, I’ll give you another example of that. You know, I only used a few examples in the book, but there are instances where black and brown and sympathetic white protesters show up after some racial incident. And they are confronted by racial slurs, and threats, but they’re also often confronted by people holding watermelons. And again, it becomes a way – so whether this person is being called a monkey, being called a nigger, being threatened with a noose, whatever, the watermelon becomes – it’s like part of that puzzle. It’s a way of summarily dismissing someone, in some group. So in Bensonhurst, when a young Al Sharpton shows up with 300 people to protest Yusef Hawkins’ killing and they march through a neighborhood, they are met with racial taunts, but also they are met with people holding watermelons over their heads. When you look at a lot of the attempt to do school busing, the buses that carried black children were pelted with watermelons. So, yeah, I mean it’s just amazing because, I guess you could say that nothing, if you’re a sociologist you could say that no person, place or thing has any inherent meaning, I think we could definitely agree that the watermelon in and of itself is not inherently racist.

DJ: So we have about ten minutes left and I’m thinking –

DP: That was way too quick.

DJ: I know! So actually what I’m thinking is I would like to ask you about straight razors in a second, but I would love it if we could schedule another interview to talk about the last few years, to talk about the disappointment and all that, because that’s huge. Is that okay?

DP: Okay. I would like to do that. I would like to say that one of the reasons I wanted to do this book was because toward the end of the research for Understanding Jim Crow, I started just finding stuff. And I found two stories that I just had never seen in any book. One of them was about, and you know it’s very ghoulish. It was about the use of black people’s skin as leather, you know, to make leather products. You know, boots and shoes and purses and razor strops. And I started thinking about the so-called black criminal with the straight razor being the symbol of that criminality, and then I started thinking, okay but what happened to the people who were lynched, what happened – it’s one thing to say that they’re souvenirs, but I found dozens of examples in the New York Times and the St. Louis Post and whatever, where people in just a matter-of-fact way would talk about wearing shoes made from the skin of a black person. And I thought to myself: You can’t really understand what Jim Crow was unless you really understand that this is a major American newspaper. One of dozens, that as late as the nineteen-teens are running stories – and by the way, the stories weren’t about that. They were just mentioned in passing.

DJ: They’re value-neutral stories.

DP: Yeah! They were value-neutral. And then the other story that kind of struck me was – and I don’t know why this surprised me, Derrick, because I spent so much of my time looking at minstrel shows and reading old minstrel scripts and listening to old music, I don’t know why it never occurred to me that someone would wear blackface makeup, you know, grease paint or whatever, and go out and commit crimes. And I think – I’m not even sure of this, but I think when I was at college, an undergrad at Jarvis Christian College, I believe one of the professors talked about Ida B Wells claiming that there were black men being lynched for crimes committed by whites in blackface.

And you know how something gets stuck in the back of your brain? I didn’t think about it for years and years and years, and then once I was able to research many newspapers, including ones that were not very big newspapers, I ran into story after story after story after story. And I’m not suggesting that this was the dominant thing that was happening. What I am suggesting was that it did happen, and that I did find dozens of examples. And so I wanted to write a book that had a couple of things that people just – that you just didn’t find someplace else. I also wanted to do a little research on Pritchard and Mobile, the cities that produced me, and I began the book talking about, you know, listening to old black men talking about lynchings, not even knowing that from where I was sitting, surrounding this store where we sat, that there was a tree where, in the years before me, where multiple black people were lynched. And so just trying to understand these ugly stories, and trying to, like I said, find some things where I could continue learning, and I think I did that. So I wanted to share that information with other people.

DJ: As you’re talking here, and, again, as I read your books, there’s a line that keeps coming back to me, which is by Milan Kundera, which is: “The struggle against oppression is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

DP: Yes. I love that.

DJ: And it seems, again, that that’s one of the incredibly, the invaluable gifts that you provide to the world, is in this. Because I also didn’t know about the pork chops. And also, of course, anybody who knows anything about the U.S. judicial system knows about black criminality, the whole trope of that. But I had never heard of, the straight razor thing never meant anything to me. I’d never heard of that until I’d read your book.

DP: Okay.

DJ: And if we don’t know it, we can’t fight it.

DP: Well, I want to tell you how much I appreciate you having me on here to talk about these topics. I think that first book, Understanding Jim Crow was easier to be write. I think I could be more detached. I think the Watermelons book was more difficult because the material in it was more painful. I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I’m just being honest. It was really, really unpleasant to read through the stuff that’s necessary to read through in order to write what you have to write. So I want to tell you how grateful I am that you gave me an opportunity to come out here and share some of my ideas.

DJ: Well thanks you for saying that. And so far as taking on this material, something that has been said about me, is that in my work I have to read – my work contains a lot of atrocities. And as I’m doing the research for it, I’m often just sobbing as I read this or that thing. And then once I’m done sobbing, I see where this goes in the book. And I just want to say, I know this for myself, and I’m suspecting it for you too, that this is – not everyone is capable of looking at these materials and not looking away, but instead looking at them and metabolizing them and then turning them back into a gift for the community. And that’s one of the things that I really appreciate about you is your, and I’m saying this as somebody who does this myself, that you have this tremendous capacity for staring at the horror without it destroying you, and then presenting that to people. As you’ve said about the people at the museum, presenting that to people in ways that they can then take into bite-sized, you know, you sort of took the hit for the team, of looking at it. And of course you and I don’t actually take the hit for the team, because we’re just looking at the atrocities. This is how I don’t feel so bad when I’m looking at the work, is that I feel bad for looking at it, but I’m not the person that actually had this done to me.

DP: Right, right.

DJ: And so my sacrifice is trivial compared to theirs.

DP: Right, right. I know, I agree.

DJ: So we have two or three minutes left. What do you want for listeners to take away from this interview? What do you want them to know about racism in the United States and its history and what we can do to change that several-hundred-year legacy?

DP: I don’t think we can change anything until we accept that what we have experienced has been almost inevitable. That when we set up a society where every major societal institution, the family, religion, the government, the military, the mass media, all of it; was based on ideas that you and I, and I think most people, or many people today would call white supremacist ideas. The things that followed were inevitable. And the way to change this, if it can be changed, is to find a way that we can separate emotion from the critique. And I don’t think we’ll ever have a true reconciliation commission in this country. Although I would love to see a plaque, at least, for the 4000 African-Americans that were lynched. I don’t think we’ll ever have that, and I know that when most people talk about the need for sustained dialog, they’re not talking about it in exactly the same way that I’m talking about it. But that’s what we need. When I stop believing that words matter, I’ll shut up. And I’m not at that point yet.

So the other thing that I want to focus on is that whether we’re talking about African-Americans dealing with racism or women dealing with sexism or the LGBT community with injustice against them, we cannot do these things alone. We have to have allies. We have to figure out a way to work together to become less territorial. I think we’ve lost a little bit of that, to be honest with you.

So I hope people read the book, that they learn some facts that they didn’t know before, and that more than that, they have a deeper understanding of the gulf that existed in this country. And if they have that, then they’ll have a better appreciation of when we do make progress, and what’s necessary for us to make progress.

DJ: Well thank you so much for your work, and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been David Pilgrim. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.


Josh Schlossberg 01.28.18




(Sound of Mexican wolves)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Josh Schlossberg. He is a Denver, Colorado-based investigative journalist who writes about ecology, wildlife, climate change, and energy for various publications including EnviroNews, Truthout, Earth Island Journal, Denver Westword and Boulder Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshSchlossberg. Today we talk about state governments working together to impede Mexican wolf recovery.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

JS: Thanks for having me back.

DJ: So let’s start with a little discussion of a little background. Who are Mexican wolves, what, say, was their status prior to the beginning of the recovery program, and then after that we’ll talk about the recovery program, and then after that we’ll talk about the states’ harming it.

JS: Sure. That sounds good.

The Mexican wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf. It’s actually called the Mexican gray wolf. Canis lupus is the grey wolf. The Mexican wolf is Canis lupus baileyi. It’s also known as “el lobo.” And that was a creature that lived throughout the Southwest for many millennia. There’s actually a little bit of debate, since it separated from the other subspecies, became a subspecies of the gray wolf. Obviously the gray wolf has been across the western U.S. and Canada for ages. At some point in time it separated into a different subspecies. So its historic range, of the Mexican wolf, is a little bit in debate. However, most of the government agencies claim that the historic range of the Mexican wolf was Mexico, of course, and also Arizona and New Mexico. So over the 1800’s and 1900’s, like wolves in general, the Mexican wolf was hunted. It was thought to be competition to livestock. People were just afraid of wolves. They hated wolves. Whatever the reasons, they were hunted almost into extinction during the 1800’s and 1900’s.

In 1976 it got protection under the Endangered Species Act, and in 1982 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched what was the original Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan. The goal was simply to keep the keystone predator from becoming completely extinct, and at the time, they really didn’t have very high hopes. They thought maybe they could preserve a token number in the wild. And what they did is they had a captive breeding program, so they had a few strings of Mexican wolves that they had captive bred, and they released those into the wild over the years, and they actually did better than expected. So today there’s about 113 Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico and there are 31 in Mexico, down in Chihuahua and Sonora. That’s kind of good news but it really doesn’t ensure the species is going to exist into the future. The numbers are pretty limited as they are, and the other issue is that there’s pretty poor genetic variability, so basically inbreeding. The concern with inbreeding is that the animals are not as robust. They’re not as healthy. And the other concern is there’s not a lot of high-quality habitat left because humans have destroyed most of the habitat and the forests and the other lands in which they live. There are humans that are really close and that disrupts the wolves’ ability to prosper.

So over the years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been working on this wolf recovery plan, this Mexican wolf recovery plan, but they were kind of dragging their heels, at least according to conservation groups. Back in 2014 a few of those groups decided to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service for delaying that completion of the plan. So, because of a settlement, the agency agreed to have the final plan out in November of 2017, so they just released that a couple of months ago.

The plan itself, the purpose is, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, to create two genetically diverse Mexican wolf populations and that would be distributed across areas of the historic range in the U.S. and Mexico. And it’s estimated to cost about $180 million and that’s going to be paid for by federal and state government agencies and NGO’s as well. They have a specific number that they’re trying to reach with this plan. The number would be 320 wolves in the U.S. and 200 in Mexico. Obviously the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have much of a say as to what goes on in Mexico, but the plan would be to have 320 of them in the U.S. over the next two to three decades, and then they would delist them from the endangered species lists. So at that point, all the protections afforded to the Mexican wolf would be removed.

Sometimes that’s a good thing, right? If you have enough numbers that it doesn’t have to be considered endangered, but a lot of scientists and a lot of conservation groups say that that number is way too low to delist them. I can get into a few other details of what’s going on, unless you have any questions for me right now, Derrick?

DJ: So far, the fact that they want to establish these two populations, that part at least is sort of good, right? I mean, this is, so far, we would like the numbers higher, we would like them not removed from protection. Bu so far, that part of the plan is okay, right?

JS: Of course. The idea of establishing protections for the wolf is a good thing, yeah. And the Fish and Wildlife Service does deserve due credit for having brought them back from the literal brink of extinction. So that’s pretty good. But there are some concerns with what the plan is looking to do, and I can get into those, if you like.

DJ: Yeah. Before we give too much credit to the Fish and Wildlife Service – and I do want to say, I know a lot of individuals who work for the Fish and Wildlife Service who are often very dedicated and doing great work. Which doesn’t alter the fact that, as you said earlier, the Fish and Wildlife Service had, as an organization, had to be sued to do the right thing, which happens every damn time pretty much.

JS: Yeah, they’ve definitely been delaying the release of the plan, that can’t be contested. They’ve been taking a long time to put things together.

DJ: Well, since later on we’re going to talk about sabotaging plans, I want to mention one thing and then we’ll move on. The thing I want to mention is that something very important to my own political awakening, or environmental awakening, or whatever, was that George Bush the first said that he wanted to destroy the Endangered Species Act, or harm it or weaken it. And this was a big rallying cry. And he was not re-elected, and Bill Clinton, who talked about supporting it; what he did is defund many of the programs. So Bill Clinton actually put a smiling face on doing more harm to the agency than Bush did. And my point in bringing all that up is both Democrats and Republicans oftentimes – the Democrats can give lip service to endangered species, but both Democrats and Republicans often work in their own ways to delay the recovery of species, which is a sort of foreshadowing of where we’re going later.

JS: Yeah, I think that is an important point. Some of the, not to speak ill of them, but some of the conservation groups that were working on the Mexican wolf plan and criticizing it, they were saying that it was because of the Trump administration. Well the reality is a lot of the dawdling had been happening under the Obama administration. So I think it’s safe to say that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are looking out for the best interests of wildlife.

DJ: Yes. So now let’s go on with some of the problems of the plan.

JS: Sure. Well, you mentioned that sometimes there are some good folks who are in these agencies, and I think that’s true. There are a lot of well-meaning folks. There is a fellow named David Parsons, and he’s the former Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1990 to 1999. And he was a part of what was called the Science and Planning Subgroup of that recovery team. So in 2011 they had recommended a minimum of 750 wolves in the U.S. and 100 in Mexico. And that would be like three separate populations of 200-300 wolves before delisting. So keep in mind that the current plan, the plan that was put out there, says just 320 wolves when scientists said “No, there needs to be 750 wolves.” So that’s one of the main issues that conservation groups and scientists are pointing out with the current, the final Mexican wolf recovery plan, is that those numbers are actually too low.

And there’s a bit of a story on how it’s theorized that this came about. In theory, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service was considering these numbers. That was its own scientific group that it put in place to make those recommendations. But what happened was when those numbers were released back in 2011 – and I have all the documents to this, it’s all in my article on EnviroNews, which you can check out.

(Also this just out)

What Parsons said, this former Fish and Wildlife Services fellow, was that when these numbers came out in the meeting with stakeholders, all sorts of stakeholders were involved with it, including ranchers. Well, the ranchers, his quote was “they went ballistic.” So they were not happy with those numbers because in their minds wolves are a threat to the livestock industry. Sometimes there’s depredation but actually it’s pretty infrequent and they’re usually compensated for that, but still there is a lot of animosity from hunters and ranchers.

DJ: I want to put a little asterisk in there on “they’re compensated,” because this is something I’ve been working on for decades and it pisses me off. Oftentimes they are not only compensated but they are compensated at multiple times market value, so that if they have a cow that they could sell for, I don’t know what a cow goes for, but say they can sell the cow on the market for $800, they often get like double value if a wolf kills it. Which means if I were a rancher I would want the wolves to kill, because I’m getting twice the money. But leave that aside.

JS: That’s a really good point. The livestock industry is not hurting because of the existence of wolves. Nevertheless, politically they’re opposed to it and those numbers were supposed to be kept internal, but they were leaked right after that meeting and pro-ranching, pro-hunting voices like U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah, he put out some media and opinion pieces against the plan with these numbers that were supposed to be secret at the time. And it got all over the media, and in response, the Fish and Wildlife Service cancelled the next meeting of that subgroup of independent scientists and they never held another one.

So that’s one component, the numbers component, which is really important. And then the other aspect, which the scientific group was advocating for, was habitat. So we talked a little bit about the historic range, that being Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico. Even though that’s debated, let’s just assume for the sake of argument that that’s true. So the scientists were saying that if all of that land was still intact that would be fine, but it’s not. Obviously humans live everywhere and the landscape has been despoiled and there’s a lot of human encroachment, which means that the historic range is no longer suitable. There are various studies demonstrating that fact. There was a 2015 study in Biological Conservation and it said that most of the Mexican wolf’s historic range in Mexico is unsuitable due to human activity and that the chances were the wolves would be killed if there were more of them in that area.

So basically the idea of that historic range is no longer applied. What they needed was to have a big chunk of land in Arizona and New Mexico as well as the Grand Canyon region, northern Arizona and southern Utah and the southern Rockies region in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. So that’s what the scientists recommended. What the historic range has been arbitrarily put at was below Interstate 40, which is the interstate that runs east-west across northern New Mexico and Arizona.

So the final plan did include limiting that range below that, so basically just keeping them in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. No wolves would be protected in Utah and Colorado. And what my article was about was if you look back and you find what the states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona have been advocating for years, it’s that the wolves would not be allowed outside of their historic range, which means zero wolves in Colorado, zero wolves in Utah, and none in northern New Mexico and Arizona. So despite the scientists inside the Fish and Wildlife Service saying “No, we need to expand the range,” it just so happened that the final plan for the Fish and Wildlife Service accorded exactly to what the states had been demanding.

And I can go into some specific examples of what the states were demanding over the years.

DJ: Yeah, I would love for you to do that. But before you do that, I want to talk for just a moment about the notion of historic range, which you have mentioned, but especially – just yesterday I was interviewing somebody about the harmful effects of the solar power generation facilities in the desert, and they were talking about the mortality of birds associated with them. This is going to have a point. The point is that one of the birds that has been killed there was a blue-footed boobie, who typically live in the Galapagos. My point is that when we talk about a historic range, the wolves did not stay south of the land that would someday become I-40. Wolves are especially known for moving. There are packs of wolves that have moved into Idaho and people in northern California are really either excited or angry, depending on who you are, because there are wolves who just in the normal state of things have made their way down to California.

And one more thing before I’ll shut up, which is that I was talking to a grizzly bear expert a few months ago, who said grizzly bears actually expand their range fairly slowly, because the daughters will basically want to hang out kind of near the mothers, but they’ll expand it a few miles in one generation. As opposed to wolves. They can go a couple hundred miles in one generation, or further.

So I just wanted to throw all that out. So before you go into the other stuff, can you talk for a moment about the stuff I was just sort of rambling about?

JS: I think that’s completely accurate. Of course, the idea that the wolves stayed below Interstate 40 when it didn’t exist is stupid. They drew some arbitrary demarcation. It may well be that over recent centuries they lived below a certain limit most of the time. It’s really hard to say. David Parsons, the guy who used to work with Fish and Wildlife Service; now, I should say, he’s actually a strong wolf advocate and joins these conservation groups to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s the one who pointed out that wolves were once distributed from Mexico City up to the Yukon, as the gray wolf, and then the subspecies separated. So it’s kind of dumb to say no, we know that these creatures didn’t move beyond this limit. But it’s going to be hard to prove one way or another.

What is important, however, and I think that’s where the attention should be focused, is what sort of range do the wolves need to survive? And what sort of landbase do they need to perpetuate the species? And the science shows almost unequivocally that they need to expand beyond what was the arbitrary “historic range” anyway. So that’s no longer even relevant.

DJ: I want to say one more thing about this, which is if – let’s pretend that the limit was I-40. What was probably the limiting factor at that point was not a lack of habitat, but was the presence of the non-Mexican gray wolves. That was probably the limit. There were wolves in southern Colorado. The question is whether they were Canis lupus or Canis lupus baileyi.

JS: Right. Exactly. That’s a good point.

DJ: I don’t want to distract from your very good main point but the important thing is the science on what they need to survive. That’s actually crucial.

JS. Yes, I think so. That’s a really interesting point, though, that you’ve made. It’s probably true that the gray wolf itself was dominating those other habitats and the Mexican wolf was staying down where it was.

But regardless, the scientists say that it needs more range. But the thing is the states of Colorado and Utah have stated that they do not want wolves in their states. The same with Arizona and New Mexico. So the most damning information – and none of this is secret, this is all out there and I have links to all this in my article – so there was a joint letter sent by the governors of those four states to, it was the Secretary of the Interior and the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service at the time. And basically they said in the letter that they did not want the Mexican wolves to go above that arbitrary I-40 boundary, so stating very clearly, on the record, that means no Mexican wolves in Colorado and no Mexican wolves in Utah whatsoever. And then when you take a look at some of the other documents and statements that have been made over the years by these different states in regards to wolves, you find that they’ve been very hostile to the reintroduction of wolves. They stated that they do support the Mexican wolf recovery plan and they’re actually fans of the current plan, because it just so happens to do exactly the things that they want to do. So they’re okay with the wolves existing below those boundaries in New Mexico and Arizona.

But, for instance, in 2016 the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission passed a resolution that would oppose the release of any wolf subspecies into the state. So there would not be any captive wolves released into Colorado as of now. And they did state in that they wanted also for the Mexican wolf to stay in its historic range. They made clear statements about that in the past. And in 2016 the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the release of captive wolves into the state. That’s still going on. The injunction was granted and then it was overturned, so that’s in federal court right now so stay tuned about that. I’ll probably be reporting on that in the future.

And this is just an abbreviated list of the things the states have done to push back wolf recovery. In 2011 the New Mexico Game Commission backed out of the wolf recovery program altogether. They didn’t want to have anything to do with it. That’s the state agency of New Mexico. In 2010, Arizona Game and Fish Department contacted Congress and they said they wanted the gray wolf and the Mexican wolf to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act. And Utah in 2010 had a bill that would require its Division of Wildlife Resources, so that’s their state wildlife agency, to get rid of any wolves found inside of state lines. And they threatened to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service if the Mexican wolf plan expanded the range into the state. That’s been years of them being pretty obviously opposed to wolf recovery and specifically Mexican wolf recovery.

And the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, based on its own scientific recommendations, was considering more numbers and expanding the range, and then after the state pushback they ended up doing exactly what the states wanted. So the contention from conservation groups, and I think it’s pretty much fact, is that the states didn’t want an expansion of the range, they didn’t want more numbers for the Mexican gray wolves. The federal government was considering more numbers and greater range and they decided not to because they didn’t want to have to contend with the states. So basically the states wrote this plan and a lot of the states are thought to be influenced by the pro-hunter and pro-ranching special interests.

And so the conservation groups are suing on this. Whether that will come to any fruition is hard to say.

DJ: So let’s be explicit. What is wrong with a state government attempting to influence a recovery plan?

JS: Well, they’re stakeholders. So for any federal recovery plan the state’s warden should have a say. But the Endangered Species Act is supposed to be guided almost exclusively by the best science. So the best science says these are the numbers that we need and this is the range that we need. And it’s not supposed to be based on political reasons. And actually there was a document – I have to dig that up – that stated explicitly that the Fish and Wildlife Service was making this decision for sociopolitical reasons. I have to pull that up. But there are notes from a meeting that happened down in Mexico that stated that they were going to make this decision because of political reasons, i.e., the states were opposed to that.

So technically that is not what the Endangered Species Act allows for. And it’s my understanding that that’s what the conservation groups will be suing on. So the Fish and Wildlife Service has already sort of admitted that’s why they made the decision.

DJ: Two things. One is: Here is one quote from your article. Fish and Wildlife, in their biological report for the Mexican wolf, determined that wolf numbers wouldn’t be based on science alone, but also what is “socially acceptable in light of the ongoing issues around livestock depredation and other forms of wolf/human conflict.”

JS: Right. Good point. The other quote is from – I have the notes of this. It’s an April 2016 Mexican Wolf Recovery Planning workshop in Mexico City. And they specifically state that they left out those other regions in the plan, the Grand Canyon and southern Rockies, because of “geopolitical reasons.” So they have that in their own notes. So that’s fact.

DJ: And so one of the reasons I wanted to interview you about this particular subject, apart from a love for the wild and Mexican wolves, is that the Endangered Species Act – and you said this before – but the Endangered Species Act, one of the beauties of that law was that it was supposed to be based explicitly and pretty much solely on science and on what is good for the creature. And the introduction of having a creature be saved, or brought back, recovered, based on terms of “social acceptability” – that is, I don’t know if I want to use the term “blasphemy.” But that is – we can say without using hyperbole, that that is grotesquely counter to the intent of the law.

JS: Well, it seems as if it would be, and that’s what the courts would decide, that’s what the lawsuit would be on. So it’s technically potentially illegal. But there is another point to make about social acceptability, and this was made by David Parsons. So let’s just say that social opinion does play into this when it’s not really supposed to. According to the many polls that have been done of citizens of the four states, people want the wolves to come back. The vast majority, around 70% of folks in each of the states want wolves to come back. So it’s actually a small percentage that don’t want wolves to come back, but again, it’s the powerful special interests that have the ear of a lot of the politicians and the agencies. So even on social reasons alone, we would be reintroducing, or allowing at least, the spread of the wolves.

DJ: There is this phrase, “other forms of wolf/human conflict.” And I just want to say explicitly that there has never been a human killed by a wolf in the United States. So when they talk about wolf/human conflict, what they’re really talking about is they’re just repeating the same thing they just said, livestock depredation.

JS: Right. Yeah. And the fear of the wolves, of course, that’s a deep-seated fear and it’s not been backed up by fact or evidence.

DJ: So what is the current state – I think you’ve said this, but I’m a little unclear. What is the current state of the conflict over these rulings?

JS: At the end of November, pretty much after the final Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan was released, EarthJustice and several conservation groups filed their 60 day notice to sue on the violation of the Endangered Species Act in the plan. So they basically say that the shortcomings in the numbers and the allowable range is going to prevent the wolf recovery. If the recovery plan does not allow for a recovery, there’s something wrong.

DJ: And something illegal. I mean, that violates the Endangered Species Act.

JS: Yes, that is the contention. And it’s up to the courts right now, and the courts don’t necessarily always create just outcomes, but that is the hope.

DJ: We’re about 30 minutes in, so we have about 15 minutes left. I want to start going in the direction of: If people care about this, what can they do? I know that we still have a fair amount of time left, but let’s go with that for a second. What can people do to support these lawsuits, and/or in any way help with the wolf recovery?

JS: Definitely becoming knowledgeable about what’s going on. I think a lot of people aren’t quite aware of the situation of the wolf. I don’t think people are aware that there is a separate subspecies, and how that’s all been delineated. And there are a lot of lawsuits to keep track of and it can be kind of confusing. But folks should, number one, just pay attention to what is going on, and keep track of that. You can go to EnviroNews. I’ve been writing several articles for them. They’ve been doing some of the best work in doing investigative deep-dive reporting on this issue. So that’s at . Otherwise, if you do want to support the groups that are moving forward with the lawsuits, that’s EarthJustice and Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Endangered Wolf Center, Wolf Conservation Center. So those are the several groups that are working on that lawsuit.

I find some interesting stuff, and I just wanted to mention this. It’s a little bit tangential. But I had been on Facebook, right? And it was a group about wolves. I’m a member of several of those. Sometimes I’ll post the article or ask questions or whatever. And I posted my article in one of these groups that’s very popular, about wolves, and they post a lot of pictures, beautiful pictures of wolves. And the administrator told me that he was going to delete my article because he didn’t want anything political posted in the group. And I just thought that was really interesting, because the question is whether or not members of the group would agree with that, but maybe some of them would. So a lot of folks just aesthetically think the wolf is beautiful, they’re inspired by them, the mythology and the symbolism. But then when it comes to getting into the nitty gritty of “Here’s what’s actually going on and here’s what you can do,” maybe people aren’t as interested in that. But I just thought that was a telling and, I have to say depressing incident where somebody who created a group all about looking at how beautiful the wolf is, and then an article saying “Hey, it might not exist in the future,” and then they’re like “We don’t want to talk about that.”

DJ: Well, even moreso, because your article itself is not a polemic. Your article is, I think, straight investigative journalism. I freely acknowledge that the work I do is polemic. I’m sort of trying to beat people over the head with a perspective. And I didn’t feel, from your article, that you were beating people over the head with a perspective. You were simply reporting facts.

JS: I was just based on the documents and just quoting what the states had done. But I think they just didn’t like the idea that that discussion was happening at all, and I don’t even know what to make of that. That’s my cynical response to “How can people get involved?” But of course the folks who are listening to your show do want to get involved, and I hope that they do.

DJ: There’s another issue I want to talk about. We’ve hit this, but the issue of de-sciencizing the Endangered Species Act. This is not the only time this has happened. This has been one of the ways that the ESA has been eroded, ever since almost the beginning. I’m sure that listeners know about the God Squad, if you recall that. The God Squad has been convened a couple of times to overrule the Endangered Species Act. There was once, for a dam that was being built in I believe Tennessee.

I don’t know what I’m trying to get at, but I think that that is one of the stories here, the story you’ve told, and another story is the increasing politicization, which has been happening all along, but the increasing politicization of the Endangered Species Act. And I don’t know if you want to go to the larger direction of increasing politicization of science itself.

JS: Well, there’s certainly that, but if we do get into that, let me first just touch on this other aspect of the Endangered Species Act. So I actually wrote an article a couple of weeks ago for EnviroNews. It’s based on a report that came out called “Suppressed: How Politics Drowned Out Science For Ten Endangered Species,”

and that was put out by the Endangered Species Coalition. So my article’s up on EnviroNews about that. And basically what that report talks about is how there are certain animal species and plant species that have been left off the Endangered Species Act because of political stuff. There’s the greater sage grouse, which gets a little bit more complicated but that’s a wild bird and they have a lot of sensitivity to oil and gas development, but they’ve been kept off the Endangered Species List because of course an Endangered Species listing means more protections, and that means that some of the extraction can’t happen. But a point that I want to make that I think is pretty important is that sometimes people get a false sense of security from even the Endangered Species Act. So obviously those who want to protect wildlife should be advocating for the Endangered Species Act. However, in this report, it shows that even the species that are protected under the ESA are not necessarily even that well protected. So just because they’re listed it doesn’t mean that they’re doing all the things that they need to do to ensure that they survive. And so in this report, and then in my article, it mentions these various species that are protected under the ESA but still aren’t getting their due protection, and that includes the ocelot. There are only 53 of those wild cats left in Texas and a few in Arizona. So Trump’s proposed border wall, whether that would even be built or not, if that were to be built, that would imperil this species’ connectivity with populations in Mexico. So that’s one aspect of it. Of course the Mexican wolf is protected under the Endangered Species Act but they’re still not giving them the numbers that the scientists say they need.

There’s the Pacific leatherback sea turtle, and so that’s been dealing with a lot of issues with drift nets, egg harvesting, boats, other pollution. And the pallid sturgeon – again, these are all protected by the Endangered Species Act, supposedly. So there are dams on the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers where this prehistoric sturgeon lives, and that’s really been harming their ability to repopulate. There’s a plant called the San Jacinto Valley crownscale, and that only grows in one spot in the floodplains of Riverside County, California, but there’s been a lot of agricultural and real estate development, and so that hasn’t really been adequately protected. And the North Atlantic right whale, there are only 450 of those left, and because of fishing situations, getting hit by ships, and seismic stuff with military sonar, their numbers are dwindling. So just because something is protected under the Endangered Species Act doesn’t mean that it is going to be prevented from extinction.

DJ: Which is a hugely important point. So what is to be done about that?

JS: (laughing) That is a damned good question and I don’t have an answer to that. My only answer would be: You have to be knowledgeable and aware in order to know that these things are going on, and you have to engage in order to prevent those things from happening. But the political system is such that it doesn’t always operate based on science and justice. So there are concerns with that.

A lot of conservation groups are doing excellent work, but some groups that call themselves that might be doing things in a way that you might not support. I’m not going to be speaking ill specifically of any groups in particular, but I think it’s important for people to know the groups that they’re supporting. So unfortunately, what this all comes down to is people taking it upon themselves to be educated on the issues, educated on what organizations are doing and what they do as their methodology for conservation. And that’s a tall order. I acknowledge that’s a tall order.

What I try to do in my articles is I try to make this science available to people in a way that’s readable. I have a decent ability to understand science but at the same time I’m not a complete egghead. So I can translate that into English and perhaps because I’m not some brilliant scientist, I’m able to just synthesize the basic points that most people would be able to understand. And I also have a really good understanding of the way the conservation group/environmentalist landscape works, so I can lay out there what individual groups are doing and what some groups are not doing. Sometimes that’s controversial. My job isn’t to shit on anyone, but it is to just provide the facts in evidence of what these groups are actually doing, and what they are not.

So my own self-centered answer to that would be: Follow the work that I’m doing, because I’m trying to get people educated, I’m trying to educate activists and other concerned citizens so they can know how to interact.

DJ: And how do we get people from the point of going “Gosh, look at that pretty wolf,” as in that Facebook group, or “Gosh, look at that pretty whale,” or “I heard this beautiful whale song today,” to getting off their butts and actually accepting that the world is more than an aesthetic resource for us to consume in between cat videos? And to do something.

JS: Well, I will give my brief answer and then I’m going to ask you for the answer because that’s been a lot of your life’s work and I think you have some excellent insights on that. I have been trying to figure that out for decades. I think there might be something to do with some people’s personalities are such that they want to dig deep and engage and fight the fight, and others just want to sit back and feel good about stuff. So I don’t know for a fact whether you can change somebody from someone who just likes looking at pictures to wanting to actually do something. But if you could, my guess is it would be done by showing the dire straits of, say, a particular creature, and showing at the same time that it’s not too late, and giving them concrete steps to do. But it’s messy. I mean, one lawsuit isn’t going to save the wolf. So there’s a lot of engagement that needs to happen. But what do you think about that?

DJ: (laughing) I think that, like you, I’ve spent decades trying to understand it, and I have no idea. You said something about personality and I sort of feel the same. It reminds me: I interviewed Judith Herman, who’s one of the world experts on trauma, and also interviewed Robert J Lifton, who is probably the world’s foremost authority on the psychology of genocide. And I asked both of them individually the same question, which is: Why is it that some people will open out from trauma and take on survivor missions and become really good people, and other people will close down from trauma and become horrible?

There are survivors of the holocaust who then became just stunningly wonderful people who fought tirelessly for justice, and there are others who came out and then beat their families, because of trauma. And of course some people do multiple parts of that. But I asked them both the question. Why do some people open out from trauma and some people close down? Why do some people end up fighting injustice and some people don’t?

These are two of the world’s experts on this. And the response by both of them was: In a very friendly fashion, they laughed at me. And they said “God, I wish I knew.” Maybe that’s an interview question for somebody I should interview sometime. How do people start? I know for myself. I knew everything was messed up and I didn’t know what to do. It was all so big and all so overwhelming. And so I didn’t do anything.

And then I realized that I wasn’t paying enough for gas and I started saying “Okay, every time I buy a tank of gas I’m going to give ten dollars to a local environmental organization.” But I didn’t have any money, so I would pay myself five bucks an hour to do activism. And the point is, that got me off my butt to do something. And for me, one of the things that’s really helpful – okay, here, I love this. I love the line by, I think it’s Florence Nightingale. She says “I attribute my success to the fact that I never gave nor took an excuse,” which is “I never gave myself an excuse to keep sitting on my butt.”

So I started, I was so scared when I first started doing activism at all, that I would write letters to the editor under fake names, because I was too scared, and now look at me now. I’m putting my name on books. So it’s like: I know you’re scared, I know it’s overwhelming. But then there’s a line from my great grandmother, which is “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard, life’s hard.”

I don’t write books. I don’t know about you with your articles, but I don’t actually write books. What I do is I write one page, because a book’s too big and scary. But I can write a page, and tomorrow I write a page, the day after I write a page, and then what do you know? In a year, I’ve got a book. Are you the same way with articles? A big article on wolves might be scary, so you gotta break it down? I mean, I don’t know.

But so just break it down and do little things. You must love something. Find something you love and then do something about it. Does that answer your question at all?

JS: I think so, and I think that makes a lot of sense. Whether it’s a matter of converting people who might not be disposed to acting; I don’t know if that’s possible. Maybe it is, like you said, the trauma response. Some people fight. Sometimes it’s flight, which is, I would say, a kind of a hedonist escapism, which is extremely prevalent in our culture. And then there’s the freeze, which is like “I don’t know what to do. Should I support the Sierra Club? Should I go out and climb a tree and do a tree sit?” So I think a lot of people are confused as to what to do, and there are so many voices telling them so many different things to do that there tends to be an overload. So I hate that the answer is “Take more time and figure it out for yourself,” but that’s kind of it. And if you’re listening to this interview right now, you’re one of the folks who has the disposition to get out there and do something. So the onus is on folks like that

DJ: Yeah. Yeah. And let’s actually make a challenge, that wherever someone lives, find some local being that you care about, who might be in trouble, and just start learning about that being; that plant, that animal. Like if you’re in southern New Mexico, or, hell, southern Colorado; find out about the wolves and then take whatever baby step. Write a letter to the editor. Even under a fake name. And then do whatever comes next after that. It’s not hard.

You know, I used to go – when I was first starting, I used to go, like – I stood outside Fairchild Air Force Base one time with signs saying, you know, “No militarization.” They gave me a sign. It didn’t accomplish anything but it was really fun and it was really encouraging. There was solidarity in acting with these other people. That’s one of the things that got me started. So go find three other people and stand on a street corner with a sign that says “Yay wolves.” That’s something.

JS: Absolutely. That whole act locally thing. But make sure that it does tie into the larger picture, because you could do something that’s just in your little corner of the world and that doesn’t ripple out, that itself is not enough. One example I want to always give, and this is kind of for people who, maybe they’re tired of the fight and they just want to sit back and just insulate themselves from it, while doing their little good thing. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you want to do. There are friends of mine in Oregon and they started up an organic farm in the mountains of Oregon, the coast range. And they said “You know, we fought the fight, we’re just going to be out there, we’re going to grow our vegetables, we’re going to detach from all this crap that’s going on. We’re going to have our minimal impact and that’s that.” So they’re growing their vegetables, raising their family. And then, from out of the sky come the helicopters that are spraying herbicides over all the clearcuts that are owned by the private timber companies all around them. And then they had a kind of reawakening, and there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t separate yourself from that. We’re in the mix of it whether we like it or not, so you’d better do something about it.

DJ: Yes. And that seems like a great note to end on. Thank you so much for your work on both the wolf issue, raising awareness on this, it’s incredibly important. Thank you for your work in general. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Josh Schlossberg. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Laura Cunningham 01.14.18




(Sound of a black-throated sparrow)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Laura Cunningham. She is an artist-naturalist, author, and biologist, who also co-founded a conservation organization, Basin and Range Watch, that works towards saving the California and Nevada deserts. She is the author/illustrator of the extraordinary book A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California.

So first, thank you for your really important work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

LC: Well, thank you very much.

DJ: So, I know this is an unfair and huge question, but what was California like prior to conquest? It’s unfair because California’s so huge.

LC: That’s part of the fascinating thing about California. It’s so diverse, and has so many different land forms and biotic communities. It did take me about 20 years just to try to get a handle on it. From the Sierra Nevadas, the sagebrush Modoc plateau, the Great Central Valley, the coast, and then down to the deserts. So I guess what I came away with, after a lot of research, a lot of travel, camping in remote areas, trying to find those little relict native grasslands, or evidence of what tribal people had done in the past. I guess what I came away with was, wow. There was a lot of just abundance of animals, plants. I mean, the variety was stunning just everywhere. Even where I’m living now. I’m in the Mojave Desert just right over the border from California and Nevada. But I’ve talked to biologists who lived in places like Ridgecrest, California, in the Mojave Desert, and decades and decades ago, when they were children, they’d walk out and see desert tortoises just roaming about in the warm spring, with wildflowers blooming, and they’d go out and there’d be herds of these dome-shaped shells, slowly moving across the creosote flats. And there are estimates that there could have been maybe 100-200 per acre (mile, as per later correction) . Now they’re down to – an abundant part of the desert for tortoises now might have 10 per acre. That’s like a high number. There may be 1-2 per acre, and great stretches of the desert have no tortoises left.

For the same story, you could go to the Central Valley, like around Sacramento or San Joaquin area. People would report in the late 1800’s a herd of 1000 tule elk in the native grasslands and marshes, around the rivers. And then apparently the San Joaquin Valley, which was partly a desert, and then partly gigantic pluvial lakes from Sierra meltoff. Part of San Joaquin Valley might have had the densest population of pronghorn antelope in the world, perhaps. Definitely in California, possibly in the country. They just really liked those vast saltbush flats, and barren, to us it would look like a wasteland, but they love these little annual wildflowers and native annual grasses, and they were just thriving in that kind of landscape. Every habitat, every part of California had some sort of abundance. I haven’t even touched upon the salmon. There of course may be exaggerations, but there are some eyewitnesses, again, around 1900, where people would go to Carquinez Strait, which is this gap in the coast range where the combined flow of the Sacramento and the San Joaquin Rivers, the whole drainage of the entire Sierra Nevada would squeeze through this gap, Carquinez Strait, into the San Francisco Bay and out to the Pacific. And at certain times of year there would be massive salmon crowding through this on their migrations up to their spawning waters, the headwaters of rivers. And apparently you could have seen the backs of salmon just crushing together in this strait.

And people would joke “Well, you could have walked right across it for 3/4 of a mile, on the backs of salmon.” And I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but it gives kind of an image that probably wasn’t too far off the path. Some of the Chinook salmon were four feet long. So just image after image, I encountered in my researches of California history, talking to some of the elders of different cultures who saw the last vestiges of that.

So that’s kind of in a nutshell some of the abundance I’ve found from California. It matches so much of the rest of the country, too. The incredible bison herds in the Great Plains. Passenger pigeons in the east. There definitely was a pattern that emerged from my research: less people, more wildlife.

DJ: A couple of things. One of them is that I live about 20 miles north of the Klamath, and there are accounts, even as late as the 30’s, of the Klamath being “black and roiling.” And the Klamath’s the second-biggest river flowing into the Pacific Ocean in the United States, after the Columbia. So it’s a pretty big river. And there are accounts of it being “black and roiling” with fish. And I used to think, like you, “Yeah, are they exaggerations?” And then somebody, gosh, 12-13 years ago, sent me a photograph of a river up in Alaska that at the time still had a lot of salmon. The picture was interesting, because if you look at it you can’t see much at first, and then you see like little bits of yellow at the edge of the river, and then you realize that the black that you see in the middle is all fish, and the reason that you can’t see the bottom is that the fish are packed in except for little bits to the side where they don’t quite go up. So I’ve actually seen a picture, and I have that picture on my wall, or on my bookshelf, and I look at it and it is one of the things that inspires me.

LC: That brings up a point that I keep coming to over and over too, is the lack of – the forgetfulness. The lack of oral tradition that our current society has. As if some of these scenes of abundant wildlife never existed. And I know tribal cultures have a very long oral tradition, but our current culture seems to have a very short memory. And what’s gone is gone and people can’t even believe that we’ve had abundance like that. And I’ve seen little bits and relics of it. One example is, I was mentioning the desert tortoise, which, now when you drive to the desert or hike to the desert, you’re always surprised to see a tortoise. It’s an amazing sight, and you stop and admire this federally threatened species.

I had an opportunity around 2005 to go, it was like a contract wildlife biology job on a military base. It was actually in Nevada, at the Nellis Air Force Base, the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas. And my job simply was to move desert tortoises out of harm’s way from a military target that was being built to be live fire bombed. And I thought this would be a pretty bad job, but as I discovered, it’s an air force base, they only really disturb this one playa, and the number of tortoises there was fabulous. I felt like I was going back into time. It’s ironic, because it’s a military base and I’m a pacifist. But the area was closed off to all population. No wild dogs, no trash that subsidizes ravens, that often take baby tortoises. Disease of the tortoise was nonexistent. So everywhere I walked, through this relatively pristine Mojave Desert, I’d see tracks of tortoises. And every day I’d find tortoises that I’d have to move. And I found nests of tortoises that I’d have to try to protect from this small development, the target.

So it actually gave me a sense of “Here it is, I’m seeing the past.” This little island of a military base was like a cutout of a past scene. And it really is. If you don’t disturb the desert and sort of leave it be, because the military actually voluntarily hired people like me to manage the tortoises out there. Basically they had just not managed them. And because of the nature of the use of the land, they were left to their own devices and thriving. That was just one example of how you can see the past in certain little relict areas.

DJ: Imagine that, nonhumans being able to take care of themselves.

So I’m going to go back for a moment to this idea of 100 tortoises per acre. Was that what you said?

LC: Yeah.

DJ: A long time ago. So this is desert territory, right? So this is not like forest, where you wouldn’t be able to se them. I lived in Nevada for awhile and I know if you have 100 acres there and you have a bunch of beings on them you can see them. The point is you would actually see a shedload of tortoises at one place. I’m trying to picture this.

Kids go out and play, you know, when they’re seven years old and they’re out playing tag or something out there. It sounds almost like there’s a chance they could stumble over a tortoise. This strikes me as both heartbreaking and beautiful.

LC: Right. I actually misspoke. It is a hundred tortoises per square mile.

DJ: Oh, okay.

LC: But that’s still very dense. If you were a kid walking out in the spring, yeah, you’d … there are images where I’ve talked to some people who lived in Ridgecrest and they’re currently tortoise biologists, and they said that as a child they’d walk out and they’d just see a tortoise maybe every 100 feet. You could see several in your line of view, in the creosote. And to stumble upon that many, just on a walk, as a child outside of your town, is so rare now. Only inside of fully-protected military bases.

DJ: So before we talk about the importance of remembering, I want to ask you to talk for a moment about grizzly bears. There currently is one on the state flag, and there are some in zoos, but other than that, grizzly bears are not in California. Such was not always the case.

LC: That’s another interesting case of almost a total forgetfulness of what California was like in the past. We associate grizzlies with Alaska and Yellowstone National Park now. Even I had difficulty trying to picture what it was like walking around or hiking in the hills in the coast range. I grew up in the Berkeley area of San Francisco Bay and I just couldn’t imagine the oaks grass hills with large grizzlies roaming around them. So I took off for two weeks and camped in Yellowstone National Park, which was the closest area where I could get that feel of the past. And it was very different. I mean, it was of course slightly dangerous. We were told by the park rangers that you can’t just leave your food out on picnic tables in the campground. I just had a tent. And you had to seal them up in your car or special boxes. And I joined a group of bear watchers, which was something like bird watching. We had our spotting scopes along the roadsides and we would just wait in the early morning and scan the hills for grizzlies. And sure enough, they’d come into view and all sorts of fascinating behavior could be seen. Mothers with cubs and giant males roaming about. And sometimes they’d be sniffing the sagebrush areas, looking for elk calves.

But it was a very different feel to the land, to have these extremely large carnivores roaming around, and you had to very much think about “Well, if I take a hike on that trail, I’d better be bear aware.” Or if I just camp in my tent. You’ve got to be a little bit careful. So coming back to California it was fascinating to read all the historical accounts of the abundance. They were very common, abundant grizzlies all over California. Apparently they must have had a very high genetic diversity, because in some areas they were smaller, such as the northern forests. But in southern California, around Los Angeles, they were gigantic. Some of the measured specimens that were hunted, or the skins – they were as large as brown bears in Alaska. And that’s probably because they had a warm mild winter. Some of them didn’t hibernate because they didn’t need to. No snow. And they had abundant acorns to feast on and steelhead trout in the streams and berries in the chaparral. So it was very interesting to see that had been completely erased.

And another thing I thought was interesting about grizzlies in California was they were probably pretty much keystone species, meaning they were important for other species and for somewhat shaping plant communities. Grizzlies have these giant six inch claws that are actually used for digging. They’re quite into digging up wild onion bulbs and digging up gophers. They probably actually started to shape certain parts of the California prairie. They probably feasted on salmon, and I’ve read some research about bears in other parts of Alaska dragging carcasses of salmon that they’re feasting on far into the forest. And that actually adds nutrients to parts of the forest.

So now, when you don’t have bears, the salmon don’t reach those distant parts of the watershed. So just things like that. I think that grizzly bears were probably very significant in the ecology of many different California plant communities, and their being erased is still somewhat fascinating to me, that we just – as you say, they’re on the flag, and we barely give it a second thought, that California had very large bears roaming almost everywhere. Into the edges of the desert and far up into the Sierra Nevada, and definitely along the coast where the population centers are now.

DJ: And we always think of grizzly bears as essentially solitary, but I’ve seen numerous references that use the word “troupes.” And I’m going to quote something from your book.

“The Spanish explorer Pedro Fages, a few miles west of San Luis Obispo in the summer of 1769 noted ‘In the canyon, we’re seeing whole troupes of bears.’” Troupes! Troupes of grizzy bears! Whole troupes of bears. “‘They had the ground all plowed up from digging in it to find their sustenance in the roots which the land produces.’”

And that’s not the only account, like I said, that has used the word “troupes.” I’ve heard of; there were so many whales in the ocean that they would die just of natural causes and wash up on shore, and then, again, troupes of grizzly bears would eat the dead whales. And then I was reading this account. I don’t remember whether this was in your book or somewhere else. I was reading this account of somebody living in the Sierra Nevadas and they would say it would be routine – this is 1840’s, 1850’s – it would be routine to see a troupe of grizzly bears just sort of ambling down Main Street. They were incredibly common. Obviously humans inhabited California and grizzly bears did, and it is quite possible for humans and grizzly bears to coexist, as they did for thousands of years.

LC: It’s interesting that even today some wildlife biologists studied the troupes of grizzlies they see on occasion in areas where they’re still around, and they note that it’s often because of a concentration of resource abundance. Some sort of food is attracting the grizzlies, whether it’s moths in the whitebark pine or a whale being beached. Once again we’re coming back to the abundant resources. And I hate that word, “resource.” That’s what we use now in land management. But the indication of the abundance of food and fresh water and complete large landscapes that are not disturbed or fragmented. This is what they mean by “abundant resources.” In that, there were dense concentrations of food for grizzlies, attracting these numbers that would come together. And I bet there’s grizzly behavior in the past in California, the likes of which we don’t even see today. Perhaps in parts of Alaska.

The native tribes, too, were taking their own resources, too. Hunting, fishing, gathering acorns and grass seeds. They were living together with all these herds of elk and grizzlies and salmon. And that’s not meaning to paint any sort of picture of idealistic society in the past. But it is comforting to know that humans can live in a world of abundant resources and not have everything go extinct like we’re having today.

DJ: So I’m just going to grab a couple of random places from your book. Just literally going to open the book to some pages and read out a couple of lines from each one. “At Putah Creek, herons nested by the hundreds. A rookery west of Gridley had 600 great blue heron and great egret nests but was completely cut down in the 1950’s.” I can’t imagine seeing 600 great blue heron nests in one spot.

Okay, another random place. “‘At once,’” Juan Crespie described Point Arguello north of Santa Barbara, ‘at once after setting out we commenced to find that fields all abloom with different kinds of wildflowers of all colors, so that as many were the wildflowers we had been meeting along the way in the channel, it was not in such plenty as here, for it’s all one mass of blossom. Great quantities of white, yellow, red, purple and blue ones. Many yellow violets,’” blah blah blah.

This is one of the things I love about your book. And it reminds me quite a bit of Farley Mowat’s book Sea of Slaughter, which is about the abundance that was here all across the continent. Or I read this extraordinary book a couple of years ago called A Country So Full of Game, which was about Iowa of all places. And I know it sounds dismissive of me to say “of all places,” but Iowa was once one of the most biodiverse places, before corn got there, and before industrial agriculture. It was incredibly biodiverse in Iowa, because it was sort of at the edge between the eastern forest and the Great Plains. No matter where we look, and no matter where we look in your book or on this continent, we hear the same stories.

I spent a little bit of time in Orosi, back when I was a beekeeper, and one of the local people, I don’t know if this is true but he told me that the town was named because when the first Spanish explorers got there all the wildflowers were gold, so it was “oro si,” “yes, this is gold here.” They didn’t mean gold the mineral. They meant gold the wildflower.

I’m just overwhelmed by what was, and what should be. I guess the next question is finally to come back to why is this important to remember? I don’t mean to put you on the spot with your book, but why is your book so important? What is so important about this remembering?

LC: That’s a great question, and I’ve given about I’d say 100 book talks to the public now, since the publishing in 2010. And I would get that question more than I expected, about why do we even care about this? Which surprised me. And I even had at one time – I was in San Francisco and a man came up to me and was actually slightly hostile. And he looked at my book and said “What, are you trying to bring this back? Should we destroy civilization to bring all these elk and salmon back?” Like, he was somewhat afraid of the idea that California could have a past like this.

Idealistically, I wish I had a time machine and could go and live in the past. But I’m a realist and I told him “Well this is history. This is our heritage of the state. And if I lived in Europe I probably would be studying the ancient Roman ruins to understand the past, to understand the course of history. So having lived in California all my life, I wanted to understand why is California the way it is now? And the only way you can do that is to understand how it was 1000 years ago.”

I went on with this line of discussion and he actually lightened up, and he thought that was a good answer to why we should study the past. But it’s interesting how many people don’t even think California has a past. I know there’s a disturbing trend lately, even among my environmental colleagues, erasing the past of people, too. Like, there were no Native Americans, they weren’t doing anything in the land. Recent stories have come up with the big wildfires, the Thomas Fire, the Santa Rosa fire. There’s been a lot of discussion in media about how, “well there were no fires in the past.” Or there were no people managing the land for thousands of years.

Because the native people in California were very fire oriented. They used fire as a management tool to manage their own resources. I’m going to describe it just how we in our culture manage our resources. They did fire management, and that actually did reduce a lot of fuel around their villages and in their food collecting areas. They sometimes used fire to burn shrubs, chaparral shrubs so that the new leader sticks would grow out very straight. Some of these shrubs would stump sprout. Then they’d come and collect these very straight new stems, after a burn, and they were used for basketry and arrows and just a host of things.

But lately I’ve noticed that this whole past of tribal people managing California has been a little bit forgotten and erased. We’re talking now about how to reduce wildfires that destroy houses in a very different way. It’s again, I keep coming back to the theme of the forgetfulness of our society, our civilization.

DJ: A couple of things. One of them is I read someone who said that yes of course everybody affects their surroundings. But one of the big differences is that the Indians were planning on living in place for the next 500 years. And if you’re planning on living in place for the next 500 years, your land management decisions will be vastly different than if you’re not thinking that far into the future. And of course, in order to make decisions that will make it so you can thrive on the land in 500 years, you have to know what has worked for the last 500 years. You can’t manage into the future without understanding the deep past. Does that make sense?

LC: That’s very well said. If we had a bit of a deeper memory, like tribal people often do, we wouldn’t be building towns in the flood plain of a river, say. I can’t believe we still do this. The 100 year flood comes and floods everyone out. Or we’re building houses in a fire-adapted plant community, such as chaparral, because apparently we’re like a society that insists on reinventing the wheel every generation, every year. And the past doesn’t exist. So I kind of see this as a problem of, like you say, it’s very short term land management. Very profit driven, short term, not really thinking about the future.

DJ: Before we move on, there’s one more random page that I opened to that I want to mention, which is that there were estimates of about a million coho salmon in California, and current estimates are about five thousand or less. This, again, is a story we can tell, whether it’s desert tortoises or Columbia River salmon, who are at two percent of their previous population. Prairie dogs. It doesn’t matter.

Another thing I keep thinking about as we’re talking here, and as I read your book, is the line by Milon Kundera about how the struggle against oppression is the struggle of memory against forgetting. You can take any of those in any direction you want.

LC: That’s a very good quote. Because I think we are, when we forget, or we consider the natural abundance of California, which, unlike ancient Rome, we had a very natural past with people who were pretty light on the land, for building. But they did manage with fire. I’ve heard it called “firestick farming.” And to forget this I think is a danger. You know, I just was reading an article by the famous biologist E.O. Wilson, about the half earth goal, where he would want to have half of the earth in a natural state. And I was thinking about: Could we ever do that for California? Have half of California not farmed, not grazed by cattle, not full of roads. It’s an interesting idea. That would be the direction I’d like to see California go is to try to go back to some of that very healthy abundance. Free of pollution.

I don’t think that will be very easy, but that’s sort of a goal I had in writing the book. The first step is “Well, what was it like?” There are a lot of random essays and some historical accounts scattered all through libraries. I just thought it would be really great to get this all in one place, to see what California was like during roughly the last ten thousand years. And then maybe begin to see how you could push it towards that healthy type of rich diversity into the future.

And it’s interesting, the roadblocks that come up. I have a story of my sister, who lives in Richmond, in the Bay area, took some of my chapters on native grasslands. Native grasslands were just abundant all over the state, especially in the coast ranges and the valleys, where now there’s a lot of replacement by European annual wild oats and brome grasses, brought in by some of the Spanish missionaries as long ago as the 1700’s. But she wanted to take her little suburban front yard in the Bay area and restore it into a native grassland, a little patch. We’re talking not even a quarter acre here, along the sidewalk.

And she did a really nice job. She gathered local seeds of purple needlegrass and a lot of the cecelias and poppies and other flowers. And she seeded the area diligently, pulled out all the weeds. And after a couple of years it was this beautiful patch of native bunchgrasses. And then one day she got a knock on the door, and it was the City of Richmond, and they said “Well, you’ve got to cut down these weeds. We’re getting complaints from the neighbors about your weeds.” So she actually wrote back and kind of fought the city, and said – and I told her “Why don’t you cut down the tall stems of the needlegrasses, and it will imitate like an elk herd moving through and grazing it.” So she managed it in a cyclic way to sort of trim it here and there. She started an educational campaign on her street to get the neighbors to say “Well, you know you too can plant native flowers. Yes, they’ll dry out in the summer, but you never need to water. You don’t have to have this water bill from watering a lawn.”

And so she actually won out over the county. She put up signs saying “This is wildlife habitat.” Native bees, butterflies. And she has a whole group now in her block, her neighborhood, that has a club doing native plant restoration in their yards. So that was a really nice little tiny story of how you could maybe seed some of these thoughts into the future.

DJ: That’s great. That brings tears to my eyes. That’s wonderful. Please thank your sister.

LC: I will. Thank you.

DJ: I would love to see, as well as obviously loving to see the grizzlies back and loving to see wolves back and coho salmon back and the real world back; in the meantime, something I would love to see is a project like you did for California done for all sorts of biomes. I would love to see, like I said that book on Iowa was great. I would love to see the same thing for the Delta forest in Mississippi. I would love to see the same thing for West Texas. It doesn’t matter. And I would love to see that for, going further back, like the cradle of civilization. I would love to see – I’ve read accounts – before civilization arose, Iraq was cedar forests so thick that sunlight never reached the ground. And I would love to know what England was like, or France was like. And so my question is: can you talk about the process of assembling this, and what I want for both of us to do here is to try to prod people in other places to do the exact same thing for, y’know, Queensland or Tasmania or wherever the person who hears this may be. How did you actually construct the book? What would they have to do? How would they get off their butt and start doing it and what would they do?

LC: That brings to mind; I thought another great project and book would be the entire Great Plains, and the prairie into Iowa. What an interesting project that would be. I’ve had thoughts of trying to do that, but it’s pretty distant and far and I got involved in other books.

The process was actually really fun, because it involved traveling to both well-known and little-known parts of the landscape. And it starts in your neighborhood. It can even start walking down the street. You see an empty lot, say, in your neighborhood that has weeds, but if you go look more closely in that little patch of open ground, sometimes you find, like, a California poppy. And I’ve even found a couple of species of native grasses in the middle of the East Bay on an empty lot. Apparently it was one of the last unplowed pieces of dirt there.

So you can start very simply walking around in your own neighborhood and then branch out and enlarge your radius to other areas.

Parks are often really good, I hate to use the word “museums” because nature’s always changing. But they can have a lot of relict habitats. Public lands, national forests, national parks. But another parallel to that is a lot of – in my day, it was going into libraries and scanning the shelves for books on history. Now you can do that online so easily.

Just a lot of reading of history, historical accounts. There are some gems of history out there. Even back into the 1700’s; you’ve read one of the accounts by (Juan) Crespi describing what he saw in the late 1700’s. And it’s very, I hate to say accurate, but to me it has an accuracy to it. He was very good at observing nature. And I’ve even gone to some of the places that the early Spanish missionaries stopped and found some of the things that they saw, like giant grasses around Santa Barbara that were as tall as a man and a horse. And you can actually go find those still.

So going outside is, I think, the number one important thing, and actually looking, with your own eyes, taking notebooks, camera, make sketches. I mean, I have dozens and dozens of just little landscape sketches where I try to list the plants I see, and the birds. Most of those didn’t make it into the book, but I have shelves just full of sketchbooks and notebooks. And then library research, and going and looking at old maps and photographs. Like, for instance, San Francisco Estuary Institute has an exquisite collection of old maps, and they’ve digitized a lot of these and actually put them on their website. And they’re fascinating to see, old maps drawn I think for navigation purposes, of San Francisco Bay. And they just show all the intricate bays and sloughs and channels and things that have been covered over now with freeways and landfill. But old maps are just gems.

And even old paintings of early California, that can be an interesting source of information. And then also going and talking with some of the elders. Because it’s amazing how this is not too far back in time, in our continent here. There are people who have seen some of these things that are now gone. Whether it’s a – I’ve talked to people, for instance, who have seen a valley before a dam was built and the area was flooded for a reservoir. So I was able to pick their mind about, you know, you can solicit really good information from people’s memories still to this day, about “what trees did you see in that basin before it was flooded?” And talking to Native Americans about how they used fire. That’s just extremely important information too. So those are some of the ways I did the book, and of course being an artist, quite a lot of the material was for me to go to a spot, often a city, and I had grand plans to do every major city in California. The publisher quickly told me “Well, this book’s gotta be cut off at a certain point,” though. I didn’t get to do every city. But I would go to a spot, take a picture, or a panorama, and then try to reconstruct that exact scene in a painting of, say, how it would look 500 years ago, using all of this research, the best available science on what plant communities were there, what distribution of elk. Because, for instance, elk weren’t in the L.A. Basin. They were more north.

So some of the better science and biology available, historical accounts. Some my paintings even reconstruct historical accounts, such as, I think it was the 1860’s in Monterey Bay; a beached gray whale was lying there and some of the people actually observed one of those troupes of grizzlies gnawing on it. They’d actually eaten a hole into the side of the whale and the grizzlies were going inside the whale to eat it from the inside out. So I painted that.

So, because we don’t have cameras to go back in time, I think art is a really nice way to do that. But I notice you don’t even need to be an artist. There’s a project for, I think it’s called Mannahatta, and it’s a digital mapping project to try to reconstruct Manhattan Island in New York as to what it was like.

So you don’t even need art. You can use digital resources and make maps, which I think is really fascinating too, to see how completely different a place like New York City was in map form from what it is today.

So those are the main lines of methods I used for reconstructing landscapes, and they can be used anywhere in the world.

DJ: I think that’s really helpful, and if anybody’s sort of thinking about doing this, can you say something to encourage them to get off their butts and do it? Because I think the big thing is for – I’ve known so many people who had talent for this or that, but they just didn’t ever get off the dime in the first place. So how can you just give somebody a little push to get them started? Say they live in Kansas and they want to do a reconstruction of what Kansas was like. Kick them in the butt.

LC: (laughs) Kansas would be fantastic. I think one of the things it does is surprises you to see how amazing your place was, your landscape. Or your state. Kansas, I’m sure, had the most amazing herds of bison moving through it. Giant prairie wolves. You’ll learn things that will surprise you about your neighborhood. The house that you inhabit now, or grew up in, and trying to picture how that was hundreds of years ago. I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised at the history, the interesting history of it.

And I think it’s also simple observations. I think sometimes people think “Oh, I have to be a scientist, or I have to have a Ph.D. And you don’t. Anyone who has eyes and a pen and a notebook can go out and start sketching or taking notes about what’s in their neighborhood. And if you have an Internet connection or library, then you can look up some of the history. And if you start to piece this together, what you find will be exceedingly important for future generations. For example, I just volunteered on something called the Grinnell Resurvey Project. This was out of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley.

And one of my old professors came out here to Death Valley. I live in the Death Valley area now. And he was resurveying with a set of live traps to capture rodents. He captured them and let them go, but it was simply to see what was there, count them, what habitat they were in. And he was resurveying the exact same spots that Joseph Grinnell and some of the other zoologists had done 100 years ago. They had come through the same area on an expedition. Back then we just barely had the car. So I can imagine Grinnell and his fellow zoologists coming through this extremely remote area and doing a scientific expedition. They were taking notes, they had detailed notebooks. They had a couple of photographs, black and white photographs. But they had very good scientific methods for recording the landscape.

And so Jim Patton and some of these other zoologists today came back and they camped in the same spots and recorded the same things. It’s going to go into a big study about how faunas have changed over 100 years. And I remember he just told me a couple of weeks ago, he said “If somebody can do this now, they will not even understand how important this will be for scientists 100 years in the future.” Tracking climate change. So your information, whether you’re a scientist or not, or a specialist or a historian, can actually be an archive for future people to understand and believe what your neighborhood, what your landscape was like today.

DJ: This reminds me of a couple that my mom met 25 years ago, who had, 20 years previous to that, devoted their lives to doing population surveys of a specific species of penguin. And the reason they did that, starting back in the 70’s, is because they wanted to have a baseline. They knew back then that the world is getting trashed and they wanted for, when the time came, for nobody to be able to say “Gosh, we don’t have the numbers to show that these penguins are declining.”

And so they, from the day they were married, and they did it as newlyweds; they moved to this area and were just doing population surveys, because it’s like for this one population we will have the baseline, so later on we will have the information to do whatever we need to do.

LC: Exactly. And it’s real information, not models, not computer models, which I don’t always agree with. Actual observations on the ground. One of the most famous naturalists in my life was a man named Derham Giuliani. He lived in the Owens Valley area of California most of his life. He was a pretty obsessive observer of nature. I guess he had a college degree but he was no sort of scientist or biologist. But he was the best naturalist I’ve ever met. He lived in Big Pine, and I think it was every week for 40 years he drove up this road and counted chipmunks, the species of chipmunk that lives in the White Mountains. And so after 40 years of this weekly route he did, he actually tracked – he had mountains of data that scientists now are – I mean, nobody does a scientific study for 40 years straight. So it’s immensely important to show, I think he did see some shifts in range and elevation.

And scientists now are archiving his notes. Personally he passed on, but his legacy of note-taking is just extraordinarily valuable for understanding where we’re going in the future.

DJ: You know, that reminds me of something that my mother recommended that I do about 15 years ago, is every year, about this time of year, like clockwork, I start freaking out because I haven’t heard any tree frogs yet. And I think “Oh my God, this is the year that the collapse of the amphibians is going to hit home.” And so my mom suggested that I keep a calendar and just write down observations, that tonight was – it’s not happening today, but some day would be “This is the first day I see dragonflies this spring.” Or “This is the first day that the willows start to bloom.” Or “This is the first day that I hear frogs.” I hear a few frogs in the distance and then a week later it’s like “Okay, now the frogs are singing en masse.” And she suggested it at first just so I wouldn’t be freaking out every year in January. But it’s actually – this is another thing people can do, even if they don’t want to take on the entire task of figuring out what Kansas was like, which I wish somebody would do. Even if they don’t want to do that, they can still start this observation. This is really important because of the notion of declining baselines, that if you don’t know what the baseline is, then when things get worse, you might not notice.

LC: Exactly. And that’s such an easy thing that anyone can do. I mean, children can do this. I have a college-ruled notebook that always sits on my desk with a pen next to it, and every day I make a bird list, what I see in the yard. But I do things like you just mentioned. I make these phenological notes of when – and we have tree frogs here – the first day of the year that the tree frogs start calling. Around here it’s usually February 1, but it varies. When buds start to open on the cottonwoods or when the wildflowers start to bloom, different species of wildflowers come and go. These are incredibly simple things that anyone can look at, and they’re actually really important for the future. Scientists love this kind of actual data, so yeah, that’s a good idea.

DJ: So we have like a minute or two left, and either a) is there anything that you’ve wanted me to ask or that you wanted to say that I haven’t given you the opportunity to say, or b) what would be your parting note to anybody who’s listening?

LC: I guess my parting note would be that the field of natural history is kind of the basis of a lot of science, and my book was based on natural history. I mean, it wasn’t anything really technical. It was just learning how to go outside and observe nature. And I think this is beginning to be taught in colleges more and more, but there’s a definite need for people to be aware of how to go and observe things, and this can actually help you in other areas of your life, too. Developing your powers of observation and recording what you see around you is a really important skill and I think it can be something that can improve our society, even if we notice each other better, notice what’s going on in our surroundings, record some of this. And so I guess my parting plea is the importance of natural history, and being taught from childhood through college and onwards.

DJ: Well thank you so much for that. I’m going to end with just more one random thing from your wonderful book A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California. I opened to page 159 and it’s Father Crespie again, describing what you mentioned before.

“We went over land, that was all of it level, dark and friable, well-covered with fine grasses, and very large clumps of very tall broad grass, burnt in some spots and not in others. The unburnt grass was so tall that it topped us on horseback by a yard. All about are large tablelands with big tall live oaks, I’ve never seen larger, and many sycamores as well. We have come across rose patches in such great amounts that the plains here were full of them in many spots.”

So thank you so much again for your work and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Laura Cunningham. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich 01.21.18




Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guests today are Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich. Laura Cunningham is an artist-naturalist, author, and biologist. Kevin Emmerich is a biologist and former National Park ranger. They co-founded a conservation organization, Basin and Range Watch that works toward preserving the last non-destroyed regions of California and Nevada deserts.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

KE: Well thank you, and thank you for having us. It’s actually quite flattering that such a great writer and speaker asked us to be here. I’m really honored.

DJ: Well thank you for saying that. And you’re doing really important work. Can we use that as a transition into what is your work? Tell listeners a little bit about where you are, what deserts you work with, and why you founded the organization in the first place?

KE: I’ll start with why we founded it. We’ve been living out in the desert here, I have, essentially, since 1991. And we had bought a fairly large ranch out here in the Death Valley region and we decided that areas in Nevada, very open, arid areas that were really beautiful and diverse were just not getting a lot of attention. So we decided that we wanted to create a website about that, and that’s Basin and Range Watch, and try to follow, at least part time, some of the issues that were going on locally. That included a large strip mine. That’s still an issue, actually. And some large off-highway vehicle races that were being permitted by the BLM.

I think what kept us going and made us popular was this giant flock-like rush of solar applications. We attended a meeting with the Bureau of Land Management in 2008 sometime. And the managers said “You guys should be concerned.” And he showed us a map of giant solar applications throughout the desert. And we got really concerned about this, because some of these applications were 4000 acres, 5000 acres. And they were covering an area called the Amargosa Valley, and this was all due to a fairly large green land rush that was taking place from – well, the Obama administration, they wanted to subsidize a lot of green energy and try to replace fossil fuels and send that to different cities, and they wanted to use public lands to do so. And there are a lot of public lands in Nevada and California.

And that was kind of a sacred cow because it’s supposed to be an environmental industrialization. And there were a lot of other environmentally-minded people there who didn’t really want to oppose it. They wanted to intelligently put it in locations that they felt were appropriate for that kind of development, and that just happened to be the whole desert area.

And so, I think, in effect, that’s how we got started and that’s how we kind of clicked, because we were the only group really that wanted to touch this particular issue. And we did so by going out to a lot of these sites, taking photos and identifying different species on the sites and essentially telling people how diverse they really were, how they’re not just wastelands.

LC: We both worked as wildlife biologists in the desert for a couple of decades. I mean, you walk out into an area that someone would drive by on the highway and call a “wasteland,” and say it’s a creosote-bursage flat. I mean, if you walk out there, you begin to see burrows that have kit foxes and badgers, maybe half a dozen types of rodents, like kangaroo rats and pocket mice. And of course a huge diversity of reptiles. Desert tortoises, western whiptail lizards, sidewinder rattlesnakes. And so you begin to see that there’s actually a lot of life out here, and if you look closer you’ll see a lot of the barren dirt is actually composed of living biological soil crusts, which are a combination of fungi, algae, liverworts and moss. And these actually contain a lot of carbon, too. But the fungal fibers go through the desert sands in places, so even what looks just like barren desert dirt is actually microscopically alive and is a carbon sink.

And so when we see bulldozers coming, I mean, this is what we would see. Gigantic machinery has to prepare this desert for a solar project that could be 4000 acres. And so you have scraper graders, these huge things that just come and gouge out dirt and level things and pour dirt on to level everything flat. Tractor dozers that look like they have tank tracks, tractor wheels and huge shovels, and they just plow down things. And there’s even a little machine called a, help me out here Kevin, what was it? For the Mojave yuccas?

KE: It’s a mastication machine, and what it does is it’s a large motorized machine with kind of a shovel-type attachment on it. The shovel is actually a large shredding device, and it basically obliterates any kind of tree or yucca, anything woody in its way.

LC: And so we would go out to these beautiful areas full of life, and a lot of it underground, so they would come out at night, lizards and snakes, burrowing owls, and we’d see the so-called “green energy” projects completely destroy this living landscape. And Kevin and I were appalled. We said “We’ve got to oppose this” and we started commenting on environmental reviews. A lot of this is, since it’s public land it will go through an environmental review, which will have public comments.

So that’s how we got going, and more and more projects were scraping up the desert, and part of our mission became to educate people that, you know, you can come out here in the middle of summer and it looks hot, but if you come out here after an El Niño rain in the spring, it’ll be full of wildflowers, amazing wildflowers.

And then this will all be bulldozed to make a solar project. We just didn’t feel that was right. This is old growth desert. Some of the creosote are clones and they have been estimated to be older than 10,000 years, a single clonal shrub. So to us, it’s like bulldozing redwood forests.

KE: Some of the solar projects in the area called the Ivanpah Valley were all built out, and they had to clear most of the land for these solar projects. In toto, I would say about 10-12 thousand acres of land has been bulldozed. And there are certain plant species like the Rusby’s desert-mallow that was only found, most of its habitat was on the percentage of two of these solar projects in the State of California. So that’s how significantly large some of these facilities actually are. You can actually stand on one end of a solar application and not see where it ends because the horizon is there. That’s how big they are, like six square miles of land where it’s completely changed for one use and that’s solar energy. In many cases, photovoltaic panels, which actually don’t care if they’re out in the desert or sitting on somebody’s roof, and that’s a whole other issue.

LC: We’ve learned along the way, too, that the Mojave Desert, for example, has a huge potential for people to find new species of plants. There are botanists we’ve talked to that every year they go out in the spring or the fall after a summer monsoon and discover entire new species of plants. And apparently there were maybe quite an abundance of plants that are undiscovered in these deserts. So there are scientific frontiers that we’re destroying here for so-called renewable energy that can be put in other areas, like rooftops.

KE: So we have the desert tortoise, and this is really the endangered famous species of the Mojave Desert. It’s kind of the spotted owl of the Mojave Desert. It’s federally threatened, and the Ivanpah Valley, as I mentioned before, just happens to be one of the most important recognized habitats for the desert tortoise. Some of the projects were built on habitats where desert tortoise densities were over ten per square mile. And so what they had to do basically was move all of these animals out of the way. And so they would hire an army of biologists to literally go and check and collapse every animal burrow. If they would find a desert tortoise they would move it out and put it in a holding facility and eventually relocate it to another area, or translocate it; the definition of that being “five miles away.” But they had to make these tortoises survive, and that just doesn’t work all the time. It works some of the time, but it’s a sensitive species and when you take an entire chunk of its habitat and cut it off, and then move it just on the other side; the animal’s kind of intelligent and has a memory, and it’s trying to find its old habitat. And they’ve run into problems where the desert tortoises will pace the fences that they build to keep them out of the solar project.

And sometimes, because they’re reptiles and ectotherms, or cold-blooded, they’ll overheat. And then another secondary problem is that you’ve got the intelligent predators that actually will patrol the areas and look for desert tortoises that are pacing the fences. We’ve had some of these projects that were built that have had some rather significant numbers of predator attacks, just for translocated animals. They do get really good biologists to monitor this stuff. But it’s just a huge disruption of the habitat.

LC: Part of the California desert is called the Colorado Desert, which is like a low Sonoran desert, without the Saguaro cactus. I’ve been going to the desert since the 1980’s and this was a unique part of California, too. It had what are called microfill woodlands out in these dry, baked basins, but there are trees such as palo verde and mesquite and desert ironwood, even desert willows. Unique sorts of trees that a lot of the time will have a tap root that will go down maybe 60 feet and get into the groundwater. And just full of a diversity of birds. Verdins and gnatcatchers, there are some rare woodpeckers. Some of the Arizona Sonoran Desert birds will come into this part of California. And unfortunately, a big chunk of it was made into what they call a solar energy zone on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. And, again, they are bulldozing down, or have. This solar push peaked pretty much in or around 2013. But they were bulldozing down the palo verdes and ironwood trees. There’s even a kind of rare species of mule deer called the burrow deer, which is a subspecies of our common mule deer, that is specialized to live in the Colorado Desert. They live along the Colorado River and then they go into these microfill woodlands and dine on mesquite seedpods. Where were these deer going to go? This is something we would comment on to federal agencies, but we didn’t receive an answer.

So there is a large portion of this Chuckwalla Valley, for instance, in Riverside County, that’s being built up with industrial solar projects, that formerly were just beautiful and large, wild, intact landscapes of desert.

KE: There actually is another project down there, though, that is pending, and it happens to be called the Palen Solar Project, and we can’t believe they want to build this where they want to do it. It’s a desert sand dune habitat. In the Mojave Desert – this is the Colorado Desert – in the California desert, sand dune habitats only make up six to ten percent of the entire desert region. And so when you think of that, they’re almost as rare as wetlands, out in the desert. There are a lot of really interesting species that have adapted and live on those sand habitats. In a lot of ways, those habitats are really good because they can hold some water and they can actually create some good wildflower blooms when other areas are a little bit more arid. There is a species of lizard that gets some notoriety, called the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, that actually has these little fringes on each one of its toes, that allow them to just run over really soft, fine-grained sand. It has a shovel-shaped nose that allows it to dig right into the sand and burrow in there. And it only occurs on these types of habitats, along with a lot of other endemic species of insects and plants. And this is what they want to bulldoze, to put these solar projects in. It’s almost ironic that the blowing sand really isn’t the best place to put anything glass or ceramic because it sandblasts things. I don’t really think they’re worried about those longterm issues.

LC: And each one of these solar projects; it’s public land, so formerly you could go hike across it and camp and backpack and look at wildflowers, birdwatch. But each one of these solar projects has a chainlink fence around it after it’s built, with barbed wire fence on top, razor wire. And it actually encloses off a big chunk of public land from people, but also stops connectivity for wildlife. There’s whole movement corridors that stretch between mountain ranges in the desert. Desert bighorn sheep will cross basins to access new mountain ranges, and so when you plop these 4-6 thousand acre gigantic fenced-off industrial energy sprawl projects on the basins, you’re cutting off a lot of genetic connectivity for these native species, too.

Deserts are undeveloped because they don’t present a lot of water opportunities for development, and they’ve stayed historically undeveloped for quite a few years. So a lot of species, including avian, bird species; a surprising amount that I’m learning, just looking at all these solar projects, are using the deserts. A lot of the deserts occur on the Pacific Flyway. And then there are a lot of complex paths of migration for a lot of different species. And the solar projects have actually created a really interesting problem for avians, which is that they look like lakes. It would kind of be like putting a large glass building in a vast, empty area that didn’t have one before. We’re all familiar with birds hitting windows. What about these flat solar panels that are sprawling across the deserts for four or six square miles?

If you go out and you look at one of these from an adjacent hill or mountain, if you like to hike, you’ll say “That just looks like a lake.” And then we have plenty of photos on our website where you can actually see that. A lot of the scientists say that it’s a polarized effect that makes us think it’s water. That’s how our eyes see it, but we think it’s probably a lot of other identifying factors as well.

As a result, a lot of the solar projects down there in Riverside County near the Colorado River have turned up a pretty large number of species of birds that have collided with the panels. And a lot of them are water birds, like great blue herons. Teal, different types of ducks.

LC: There’s a story of, for instance, grebes, which is a type of water bird, are very specialized, and they cannot take off from the ground. They can land in water and they need water to take off. I guess they have to run across the surface of water while they’re flapping. So if they land accidentally on the ground, they will dehydrate and die. And so this has been happening, and ironically, we’ve been learning how biodiverse these deserts are, because water birds are flying from the Gulf of Mexico to the Salton Sea, and then across 100 or 200 miles of dry desert, over to the Colorado River, and then up to the Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake and other lakes in the Great Basin. So when you put these lake-like giant solar fields that reflect the blue sky, grebes will land on them and then they can’t take off and they die of dehydration.

And they’ve even found American white pelicans, whole flocks of white pelicans landing out in the middle of this dry desert on these solar projects.

KE: In the Imperial Valley, that’s in Southern California, there’s a lot of adjacent agriculture, some agricultural areas that have been turned to solar projects, and they have found some interesting species. The blue-footed boobie that migrates up from the Galapagos Islands is apparently a mortality on one of those solar projects down there.

Another mortality that’s occurred just in a couple of incidents, but enough to get everyone’s attention, is called the Yuma Ridgway’s rail, or the Yuma clapper rail. And that’s a federally endangered waterbird that generally occurs around the Colorado River area. And they actually found a dead clapper rail on the Desert Sunlight project that’s down in that same area in Riverside County, and it’s concerned a lot of folks in the Fish and Wildlife Service. I believe there are less than a thousand of those known in existence. But after this happened it still went on. They just continued to build more of the project close to the river, including another almost 8000 acres after that.

DJ: Another problem I’ve heard about too, with birds, which is that on the other type of solar, the concentrated solar, that it will burn birds to death.

KE: Well, yes. That was the other thing we were going to bring up, the solar flux. So you’ve got photovoltaic solar panels and these basically derive energy from light, and then you’ve got the concentrated solar thermal plants that derive energy from heat. So they have literally tens of thousands of large mirrors the size of houses, or maybe garage doors, depending on the project. And they’re called heliostats. And what these do is they reflect the sun’s light and they concentrate it on a central receiver tower. And that, in turn, in one case actually, causes water to spin turbines to produce electricity, and in another case in Nevada, heats up molten salt, which has its own system of spinning the turbines to produce the electricity.

They’re concentrating the heat on these towers so much that it’s creating a – Laura can help me out. It’s an electromagnetic radiation. It’s solar energy flux and it’s actually more intense than fire. It actually can transfer its energy to any particle that’s in the air, any kind of debris. Like say there was a piece of paper floating off of the tower after construction. Well, in the other case, if a bird is flying through that, it really almost plays the role of a giant bug zapper, if you want to get almost literal about it. It’s just because they actually – you can go to some of these solar projects, we’ve done it ourselves, and see what they’ve nicknamed “streamers,” which are actually birds and insects that will start to transfer this energy and actually start to smolder and catch fire, and sometimes even vaporize.

In January of 2015 there was a power tower that was doing a test, that was just north of Tonopah, Nevada, and concentrated the energy on this halo up above the tower, and there is actually a video of it, and they saw about 130 birds just vaporizing in this solar flux.

LC: Yes, it’s a strange technology where this solar flux, which is heat energy per unit area, and so it’s a form of electromagnetic energy. There’s been a lot of confusion about it and we had to consult some experts. It concentrates as heat energy onto the tower and heats up a transfer fluid. Either water slashing it into steam or this molten salt, which goes into storage tanks, which is supposedly going to save the world with energy storage. But that’s another topic.

But if a bird flies into the solar flux, I think the closest we can say is it’s like getting an extreme sunburn. It doesn’t actually have fire. It’s like an electromagnetic radiation that transfers onto the tissues and literally disintegrates the tissues. We examined a prairie falcon, a beautiful prairie falcon that had accidentally flown into the solar flux of this power tower near Tonopah. It was in a wildlife rehabilitation center. So we were able to really look at this. It wasn’t charcoal or blackened. The wings were literally melted. The feathers were melted off and curled. And there were red wounds on this bird’s wings. It had flown into the lesser part of the flux and then landed somewhere, injured. So we actually got to see this and take photographs, and thought, well, there are quite a lot of birds that fly through the desert, especially in spring and fall migrations. So some of the dead birds that have been found in the Ivanpah project include every species of swallow in North America, swifts, warblers, yellow warblers, flycatchers. They’ve had willow flycatchers. And a lot of the resident birds that live in Mojave yuccas and creosote, like ash-throated flycatchers and black-throated sparrows. All of these have been found dead or injured in these solar fields. But that’s not even counting the ones that get into the real intense solar flux. The air temperature right at the tower when the plant is operating can be 2000°F. It’s very hot air and if a bird flies into that, the technical term is it pyrolizes. It just vanishes, disappears, it’s completely vaporized into nothing. So you can’t even count that.

DJ: This is not to even mention the uncountable insects who are killed by it as well.

LC: Right.

KE: They did a study of that, and they just found debris from a lot of dragonflies on the Ivanpah project, and considered it kind of an ecological trap. There’s an attraction of insects hypothetically around the tower, which attracts birds that want to eat the insects. And equally, some of the falcons and hawks that may be getting burned in the flux are attracted to some of the smaller birds that might be coming around there eating the insects. And so it’s very complicated. It’s really difficult to guess the numbers, because the solar companies can only survey so much of it, and don’t really have to give out all of the results. A lot of it has been made voluntary for them. So you have to wonder what happens when you have a team of surveyors that go out, and they survey about 20% of this project. And they do that maybe a couple of times a month, or they maybe only walk around a little bit of it every day, but they miss a lot. A lot of the projects have good access for different types of scavengers, such as ravens, coyotes and kit foxes. And many of those critters will pick up the dead or the injured birds before any kind of surveyor can even know what’s out there.

And furthermore, a lot of the birds don’t always die at first. Like Laura said, we saw that one at the wildlife rehab center. We think of the ones that are slightly injured or weakened that go out in the wild and three days to a couple of weeks later get killed by a predator because they’re disabled by their injuries. And so a lot of the numbers and estimates of what these power towers are actually killing are probably off the charts. Nobody really knows exactly what’s going on.

LC: To bring it back to the biodiversity of the desert and how amazing it is; I used to come, into the 80’s, all over and explore the California desert. It was always a vast, intact landscape that to me seemed relatively untouched compared to other parts of California and the Southwest. I could, I’m just trying to estimate, if I walked out into a typical basin in the Mojave Desert, I would probably see something like 15-20 different shrub species, native shrubs. Maybe three to four are cactus. And say it’s a good spring wildflower bloom. There might be 20-30 different wildflower species that were blooming at the same time. And then, if I were in the Colorado Desert I’d see some desert ironwood trees towering overhead. And birds in a typical desert basin, say it’s a good May morning. I mean, you could birdwatch and see maybe 50 species of resident and migrant birds. And if you camped out in this basin at night and had a nice flashlight, you’d see maybe as many as 10 different rodent species, desert shrews, kit foxes, bobcats. Mountain lions who cross basins and go hunting deer and bighorn sheep.

So the biodiversity is just amazing. I almost wish there could be more films on natural history of the desert. It would be really fascinating to educate people that this is definitely not a wasteland. But we’re plopping these, constructing these energy sprawl facilities right in the middle of all of this.

KE: I think that the deserts are always going to have a lot of threats. Even with solar energy slowing down, it seems like our economy is picking up and we’re starting to see urban sprawl really take off, and speculations and people wanting to scrape up desert ecosystems and try to build little planned communities all over the desert. So as the economies shape up, we get to see this all the time, but the solar projects really added a new element to it. It’s just that we’re going to use these areas, and we’re going to use them to really save the world from climate change. And we just always felt that they were just trying to use public lands because it was just easier to try to permit them and easier than for them to provide their own land. And there are quite a number of private lands that they could do this in if they wanted, and easily quite a number of rooftops and parking lot structures that they could build solar facilities over.

So we felt that the entire biodiversity of the desert got overlooked, but I think it took a lot of the projects getting built to get people aware. And it seems like a lot of the mainstream environmental groups at least now unanimously dislike the power towers. They’re a little bit divided still on the large-scale photovoltaic projects, the solar panels. But it took just a few projects like the Ivanpah project to get people to see what the impacts actually were.

LC: And during all of this, we’ve been working on trying to get better alternatives to show that we don’t need to scrape up these biodiverse ecosystems in the desert. So we’ve been really promoting distributed generation and energy efficiency and microgrids. The ironic thing about what’s happening now is that so many large-scale utility-scale solar projects have been built in California that the grid has become overloaded. California Independent System Operator actually has a strategic plan that is trying to figure out how to get to this theoretical 100% renewable energy goal that California has. Kevin and I actually don’t think it’s possible. But that’s what Governor Brown wants and Cal ISO is saying “Well, we actually, right now, have to curtail,” meaning shut off, “some of these solar projects.” Because they’re pouring too much solar energy-generated electricity into the transmission lines and causing rolling blackouts.

And this isn’t getting reported a lot. There’s no planning going on here. We want to build, like, the Palen solar project and put even more of this electricity onto the grid instead of slowing down and saying “Wait a minute. We need to look at better alternatives that are not going to overload the grid.”

DJ: The whole 100% renewable energy thing is a propagandistic scam. For one thing, they say 100% renewable energy but what they really mean is electricity. And electricity is about 20% of total energy use. And the other part that’s a scam, of course, is that there are always costs associated, as you’ve been so eloquently describing. There are always costs associated with this. With solar, there are the terrible costs of rare earths mining, the terrible costs of the entire production process, the terrible costs of what do you do with the materials after their utilitarian span, when the photovoltaics are no longer effective. And then in addition, there’s the big thing. And I mentioned this before we started recording, that there was this great headline in the L.A. Times several years ago about destroying the desert to save the world. And where I want to come back to on this is that – one of the things I love about your work is that so much of the environmental movement on global warming has been converted into a lobbying arm of the solar sector of the capitalist economy. And that’s not our job.

There was a time when environmentalism was actually about protecting wild places and wild beings, not about powering the industrial economy. And I just want to thank you so much for your focus on actually protecting the forest instead of trying to power the economy.

So first off, thank you for that. And second – we’re getting close to running out of time. We’ve got like ten minutes left, and we haven’t yet talked about water. And I’m wondering a) if you want to say anything more about the solar – geez, we also haven’t talked about offroad vehicles.

And there’s another thing I want to mention, too. Sorry. Which is that you were talking about the biodiversity of the deserts, and … I am a forest person. I was raised in the plains of eastern Colorado, and they’re okay, and I recognize that they’re an amazing thing for themselves. And I lived in the desert for awhile. And it’s amazing, but it’s not – when I moved into the forest, I felt at home. So I love the redwood forest, but now, I have to admit, with some – I’m still defending the forest with all my might, and defending its biodiverse honor. But I have to tell you; I don’t see that many species of plants. And I live in the forest. But I don’t see that many species of plants. I don’t see that many species of birds. I don’t see that many species of rodents every day. So what you’re saying is the beautiful redwood forests might be less biodiverse than the desert.

KE: It’s a hard thing to say. I really hate to compare two habitats, because in the past, a lot of environmental groups try to bargain off one less diverse habitat –

DJ: Oh, I’m not going to do that. I’m just kind of making a joke. I’m not saying we should bargain either one. I’m just – I love how biodiverse this forest is. And then you say that, and I’m just blown away that it’s like that’s even more biodiverse.

KE: Yeah. There are some folks who have told us that there are more plant species, for example, in the Ivanpah Valley; and that’s that desert area in the sands of California and Nevada, and it’s not really large in comparison with the redwood forest. And that’s kind of interesting to me as well. I didn’t know that either. So yeah, the desert has quite a lot of hidden mysteries, and a lot of them are just still out there, because of that you say the lack of water.

DJ: So let’s talk for a moment about – you can either go water, or you can go offroad vehicles, or if you want to make them short you can go both. And offroad vehicles, I’ll just say off the top of my head, just piss me off more than anything.

KE: Hey, I’ll talk about offroad vehicles. Why not? Something that’s going on around our particular area where we live in Nevada is that there’s a fairly large demand for offroad vehicle races, and they tend to help out the economy because a lot of the racers come in the area and they stay in the hotels and they go to the gas stations. But lately, just in the past year, the Bureau of Land Management has been really permitting a lot of these races on public land. They’re having, on average, one every month. They say they stay on the roads, but it’s really the only place in Nevada left where they allow them to do this. These races will get like 250 people and they’ll let them kind of line up and go on these roads, and they’re going like 60-80 miles an hour. And when they’re turning, they’re widening the roads, and they’re destroying creosote bushes and they’re running over Joshua trees.

And the Bureau of Land Management permits some of the races in the month of October when the desert tortoises are still active in the region. What’s amazing is a lot of the racers, they just keep asking for more of these, and they keep asking for different routes, and there’s really become little public review allowed.

A lot of the local people don’t like it around here because the races cause really bad dust. We sometimes have to go inside when they’re doing it, because we just cough. But they also leave the roads in a shambles afterwards. They’re these back country roads and there are literally humps that you can hardly drive on, and it’s really difficult to repair them. It causes a lot of invasive weeds to move in.

It just creates an environment of almost hostility out there, too. People want to go fast driving through the towns and sometimes don’t even want to slow down when you’re crossing the street.

It has a lot of pretty bad environmental problems. The dust issues don’t go away after the races stop. They take away all that biological soil crust Laura was talking about. They get rid of a lot of plants in the area and whenever the wind blows after that you get dust storms. The off-highway vehicle is really becoming a problem whenever the economy gets better because there becomes a really big demand for that “wasteland” on the desert to drive on. Just south of us, for years they’ve made an area called the “Big Dune,” a national recreation area for off-highway vehicles. And it’s a dune environment on the Amargosa River that probably had a lot of endemic plants that are not there anymore. They recently discovered the first population in Nevada of Mojave fringe-toed lizards on this dune, in an area where the off-roaders don’t go as much, but literally all of it but five acres is open to this activity. So it is very frustrating. It’s something that’s not going to disappear overnight, and a lot of people do need to talk about more.

DJ: Another thing we haven’t mentioned is something that I did love. I lived in northeastern Nevada, in Carlin. And one of the things I did love about the desert is – the off-road vehicles made me think of it – is the quiet. And I remember I had a pocket watch, and I once put it on the ground and walked about ten steps away, and I could still hear it ticking because everything was so quiet. So it seems like, in addition to everything else, and just tearing up the soils, it seems there’s a question of noise disturbance as well.

KE: Well, for off-highway vehicles, yeah, definitely. They’ve done studies of different mammals and reptiles in burrows, and determined that some of the hearing of those animals has actually been damaged after the races. Any time you’re out in the desert and one of those is going on, that’s all you hear. Because, as you say, it’ll fill up a silent valley. There’s just nothing else to hear. We’re talking these intensely gas-powered engines. That’s just one of the many impacts, along with the visual impact from the dust.

DJ: We have like five minutes left, and with two or three minutes left, I want to ask how people can help your organization. But before then, let’s try to do two or three minutes really quickly on water, because one section of your website does have to do with groundwater mining, which seems like one of the world’s worst ideas in a desert.

LC: I guess people don’t realize that even solar photovoltaic panels, these projects need water. And where do they get water? The easiest way on public lands is to sink about five to ten wells. New wells in these basins and start pumping water for various reasons. During construction, which can take two years to construct a 4000 acre solar project, they need to try to control dust because of state or local ordinances by spraying water over the roads, making cement, and then during operation they need to clean all the sand and dust off of the solar panels every once in awhile. And if it’s a concentrating solar thermal project, like the Ivanpah power tower, these require even more groundwater because they are just like a coal-burning power plant or a natural gas power plant. They have a steam turbine that generates the electricity, and so they actually need to have a large quantity of water that goes into that steam cycle. So it’s actually, to us, not that green when you’re pumping the groundwater down.

The projects I mentioned, this giant solar energy zone in the Chuckwalla Valley; some of the agencies actually told the solar developer they needed to monitor the microfill woodland, the trees. The desert ironwoods and mesquites, to see if they were dying over the years. The projects are permitted for 30 years, to operate. And so after 30 years of pumping groundwater, they actually wanted to see if these trees were dying. We asked: “So what if you find the trees are dying?” Well, the answer was, you know, “Oh well. We need the renewable energy.”

That wasn’t good enough for us. Yeah, there are some big impacts to water use for these projects.

KE: There’s a geothermal plant proposed for northern Nevada that happens to be in an area that has pools that have an endemic species of toad up there, the Dixie Valley toad. And this toad only lives in these semi-warm pools and if the geothermal plant is built, it’ll possibly mix cooler water with warmer water in order to get all the water running through the plant. And what that will actually do is possibly inhibit the breeding of the toad, because it’s up in a cold Great Basin area, and the toads will actually breed earlier in the year because of the warmer geothermal water. But altering that really delicate geothermal hydrologic cycle by building a plant right next to this might really impact the population of the toads.

They also use a lot of water through evaporative cooling for the plant. There are quite a number of desert water issues, plus we’re trying to follow some of the bigger issues, like Las Vegas, through years and years has been trying to pump water, to take it from northern Nevada. And they get approval after approval to do that. It’s so long to talk about. We just don’t have time for that. So we do follow a lot of different water issues and they’re very complicated.

LC: How to get involved. What do people do if you love the desert, if you are concerned about biodiversity? I recommend you really get on these federal websites, like the Bureau of Land Management and try to follow some of these development projects and comment. Put your comments on there. There are weeks at a time where the government seeks public comments on this, like “Why do you care about this desert?” You can actually tell them and if they get more and more comments from the public that can actually influence the deciders, the people who approve these projects, which on public land is often the Department of the Interior.

And you can get on our website, and join our mailing list. We’ll give you alerts about how to comment on these things. I think one of the biggest problems is ignorance or benign neglect of the deserts, that people, maybe if they haven’t come to the desert or seen the biodiversity, they just don’t realize what’s being lost. And so the public participation process I think is ever-more important. Some of these projects are right next to the boundaries of some of the national parks and monuments in the desert, so they can affect quite a lot of different land. I think; get involved, get aware, and learn about it is my advice to people.

DJ: So, anything else from either one of you? That’s great.

KE: I would just like to say that what we were really about in the beginning was preserving open space. The appreciation of open space opened a lot of doors to learning about the biodiversity and all of the interesting factors of the natural history of the desert. And I think that’s getting more popular for people as cities get more and more crowded. I think it’s really resonated with people over the years, and so in that respect I think it’s really hopeful that we’ll get a lot more people involved, and helping to follow us and helping to create their own groups and activism to protect a lot of these areas.

DJ: Well I would like to thank both of you so much for your work, and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guests today have been Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich. This is Derrick Jensen, for Resistance Radio, on the Progressive Radio Network.