The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West

The Ruby Mountains in Elko County, northeast Nevada. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

ELKO, NEV. – From this rest stop desert city midway between Salt Lake City and Reno the snow peaks of the Ruby Mountains are like finely crafted wainscoting in an elegant ballroom. The slopes rise sharply to form triangles in the sky. In 1989, Congress approved permanently safeguarding 92,650 wooded acres along the ridge lines from any intrusions in the Ruby Mountain Wilderness. The big flat sagebrush valley that runs up to the base of the mountains’ western flank is open range for grazing, and hunting ground for golden eagles. The watery meadows on the eastern flank are nesting sites for migrating birds. Since 1938, 37,632 acres of it have been protected as the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Elko is an intriguing place. It’s the biggest city in the nation’s sixth largest county and has a nationally-recognized cowboy poetry festival every winter. Elko also has understood since its founding as a railroad stop in 1869 the economic value of extracting resources from the land and conserving the natural geography. The county is home to one of the largest gold mining sectors in the United States. Elko County, where about 50,000 people live, was hardly scratched in the 2008 to 2012 Great Recession because Americans got so freaked out that the price of gold climbed to $2,000 an ounce.

Lately, though, residents in Elko County have been stirred up by a plan, hatched in the Trump White House, to disrupt the decades-long equilibrium they’ve achieved between extraction and conservation. In the last week of December I drove out to Elko from my base in Salt Lake City to take a tour of the Ruby Mountains and see what’s going on. Since early October I’ve been based in Utah’s capital city to report for the Los Angeles Times as the western environment and public lands correspondent. My contract ends in early March. Until then I’ve got time and room to roam to tell a momentous story of an administration’s pursuit of an economic and energy development story in the West that does not fit its time. (Read my reports here.)

The Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938, sits in a valley on the east side of the Ruby Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider

The powerful tide of that story washed into Elko County in September when residents learned that the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Ruby Mountains, is preparing to auction leases for oil and gas development on some 50,000 acres of public land that border the wilderness on the western flanks, and the wildlife refuge on the east. The Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that owns and manages most of the public land in the West, also is preparing an oil and gas lease auction for hundreds of thousands of acres of public desert land in the western reaches of the county. Continue reading “The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West”

Dennis Pace Loved His Life in Benzie County

Dennis Pace was a good athlete and loved cross country skiing. He also was almost always the tallest guy in the group, which left to right, included Heath Green, Kayla Bates, Keith Schneider, and Jack Gyr. Photo/Keith Schneider

I looked back in my photo archive to find a picture of Dennis Pace, my dear friend who died last week. I found I’d photographed Dennis solely in the winter while we skied or skated. Strange since Dennis and I spent a lot of time together during every other season, as well. He was a bike rider, a soccer and basketball and tennis player. We ran the Sleeping Bear dune trails and sailed on Crystal Lake. We shared good meals and drank beer on his deck and mine. We talked a lot about the ideas of the day. All the kids loved him.

Though he was raised in the Phoenix desert and educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Dennis very clearly ventured East to discover a region that fit his soul. Benzie County, near the top of Lake Michigan, is a one-stoplight forested county where no town holds more than 1,000 residents. Young people like Dennis arrived in the 1980s and early 1990s to build lives far from the places where they were raised.

Dennis landed in Benzie County in 1988. He, his wife Kate, and their two children, Isabel and Dakota, joined a community of caring people who formed a circle of trust and experience that he found delightful and absorbing. During the next 29 years Dennis built a lot of other good circles in Benzie County.

Dennis Pace was a good skater and raised funds to keep the ice rink in Benzonia active in the winter. Photo/Keith Schneider

His passions were his children and grandchildren, his parents and friends, music, sports, and his community. When his kids were young he was a fixture playing midfield at every soccer game, center at basketball games, and wing at hockey games. After Isabel and Cody and all the other kids grew up, Dennis managed the Benzie Area Youth Soccer Program for nearly 20 years. He raised funds to keep the Benzonia ice rink open in the winter. He joined the board of Beulah’s Darcy Library. Trained as an optometrist, Dennis cared for us at the Scarborough Family Eyecare office in Beulah. The Betsie Current newspaper published a really nice piece on Dennis two years ago.

He loved music and played with friends every Thursday at his home in Beulah. He sailed and anchored a sweet and agile boat on Crystal Lake. He liked small parties and dinners with friends. He cooked an impressive brisket feast. Dennis was generous with his time and his affection. He liked the steadiness of firm schedules and easy events, like basketball games on TV at the Hahn’s, breakfast every morning with Jonathan Clark at L’Chayim Delicatessen, and coffee with friends every Saturday in Beulah. Continue reading “Dennis Pace Loved His Life in Benzie County”

This Is Tamil Nadu

Priyanjoli Basu, a successful designer and dressmaker, flanked by her husband Varun (l) and close friend Dhruv Malhotra, at her apartment on the Chennai beach. Photo/Keith Schneider

CHENNAI, India – Unlike India’s other immense cities Chennai is a world apart. Tamil Nadu’s capital city does not have crowds of beggars trolling intersections like in Delhi. It is not nearly as traffic jammed as Mumbai. Its homes are well cared for, and many of its office buildings are new and Miami white, unlike the sagging and dilapidated built environment that describes Kolkata.

The most distinguishing feature, though, for an American journalist who has visited Indian cities and states across much of the country: Chennai’s tidiness. It’s unusual in a nation where thick blankets of paper and piles of bottles lie in the streets and alongside the highways. Household garbage, shoulder high, blocks alleys. The unkempt big cities and soiled countryside are like a metaphor for the bedlam that is contemporary India, an ambitious and crowded nation of 1.3 billion people.

Chennai is different. Quite a bit different. The city’s Bay of Bengal beaches sport garbage bins that people use. Municipal sanitation workers haul away accumulating refuse. The attention to appearances and street level hygiene is part of an unspoken culture of diligence and confidence that Chennai’s residents, well-to-do and poor, have built for themselves and their city.

Chennai’s residents know India’s fourth largest metropolitan region is on a roll. Jobs are plentiful. Incomes are rising. The city’s capable universities produce graduates that technology companies are anxious to hire.

A street merchant in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital city. Photo/Keith Schneider

Chennai’s residents also know they exist in an “at any moment” geography of peril, almost all of it due to ecological torment. In the last two years Chennai has been blasted by a typhoon, drowned in a flood, and challenged by the worst drought in 140 years. People are unnerved, for sure. In January a student protest on Chennai’s main beach grew into a statewide strike and mass demonstration of grievances that attracted millions of participants.

But even during the week of active public dissent Chennai’s residents stayed so centered and cheerful that parents brought their children to protests just to witness how a great city displays its collective discomfort. On Marina Beach, Chennai’s primary locus of protests, volunteers guided cars to available parking spaces. Vendors offered cups of tea at no charge. An army of people, young and old, gathered up all of the bottles and paper and food waste that had been dropped in the sand.

The spontaneous demonstration during the Tamil harvest festival in January attracted all kinds of people to the city’s main beach. Photo/Keith Schneider

Straightening up after the party, an especially impressive display of public civility, is seen as a civic responsibility. TITN: This is Tamil Nadu.

At the end of each of my travels and frontline reporting in nations outside the U.S. I collect the various and intriguing threads — people, events , or cultural traits — that strike me as emblematic and distinguishing. They come together in “This Is” essays that I’ve prepared from India, China, Mongolia, Qatar, Panama, Peru, and South Africa. The idea is borrowed from a scene in Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio’s great 2006 movie about diamond mining during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Asked, while having a drink in an African watering hole, about a peculiarly confusing trail of events that made no sense, DiCaprio tells his mate: “TIA. This is Africa.”

In that same spirit, here are other points of interest from my latest trip to India. Continue reading “This Is Tamil Nadu”

Regina Lopez: Update From The Philippines

Regina Lopez (r) on one of her helicopter tours of Philippine mine sites in May 2017. She held public events at each stop. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gina Lopez, the former Philippines Environment Secretary, sent a message here this week that updates her activities following the Congress decision in May to remove her from office.

“I’m now into this movement called ILOVE: Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies. The goal is to build the country from the bottom up. I am in the midst of collaborating with 20 million youth as a citizen’s lawsuit is filed against the government. Will send you the details. I’m meeting the student leaders today.”

Gina’s message also included a link this terrific video by a Dutch filmmaker. It’s quite good.

In the pantheon of courageous public servants I’ve met, Gina Lopez ranks near the top.

— Keith Schneider

Gina Lopez: A Philippine Political Story

Before she was removed from office Philippine Environment Secretary Gina Lopez prepared to launch her latest helicopter tour of abandoned mine sites. Photo/Keith Scheider

A week after I arrived in the Philippines in late April, Gina Lopez invited me to lunch at her home in Quezon City, the center of government. Lopez was engaged in a national campaign to preserve her post as the Philippine secretary of the environment. Her 10-month tenure had yielded shutdown and suspension orders against 26 of the country’s 41 big hard rock mines. Lopez formed and promoted an interagency law enforcement campaign to impede the flow of timber logged illegally. She’d advocated renewable energy in a nation adopting a misguided program of coal-fired power plant construction in the midst of a less damaging and less expensive global renewable energy revolution.

In response, a Philippine legislative committee, acting at the behest of the mining industry, was preparing to remove her from office. It was plainly apparent, though, that the orders she’d signed, and the way she’d galvanized grassroots activists, would not be so easily cleared away. Lopez looked to me to be part of a welcome trend. Several more enlightened government officials have emerged in Asia. Piyush Goyal, India’s energy minister, is pivoting the world’s second largest country, to renewable energy. Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, is seizing and sinking foreign trawlers fishing illegally off the country’s coast.

We talked as Lopez showed me around her home and gardens, which laid out on multiple levels accessible by wood and stone stairways. I told Lopez that I’d been writing about her since last summer. I was convinced her powerful advocacy for environmental enforcement and human rights was a signal of global transition. While the U.S. retreated on ecological safeguards Asia was tilting green in a way it never had before. China was cancelling coal-fired power plants. Vietnam cancelled a $12 billion steel plant because of pollution concerns. The Philippines had installed an eco-activist, a determined woman, to fulfill President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign pledge to rein in the Philippine mining industry.

The Philippines is 7,000 islands cast amid a blue Pacific. The country is stunning. Photo/Keith Schneider

“I’m thrilled to hear that,” Lopez responded. “I’m thrilled that what I’m doing resonates around Asia. It’s life. You need to sustain life. It comes from a deeper and more enlightened perception of what is needed to sustain life, and the role of the environmnent in the sustenance of life.”

Lopez is the daughter of a very wealthy and influential Filipino family that owns ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media and communications company. She’d attracted Duterte’s attention while working as the leader of the ABS-CBN foundation and taking on open-pit mining as one of her primary projects. An adventurer her entire life, Lopez’s airy home was filled with art and sculpture from various continents. Birds sang in the garden. Roosters crowed. Flower scents drifted through the open air kitchen and dining areas on several levels.

Lopez introduced me to her youngest of two sons who was returning to college. She introduced me to the woman who’d made her meals for years and the gardener who tended the tropical landscaping. She treated me like a friend she’d known for decades. I knew this was genuine because it was the same way she’d interacted with every other person she dealt with in the week I’d been around her.

Because of her strong views, courageous in a nation that regularly experiences assassinations of environmental activists, Lopez was lionized by millions of Filipinos. She made it a point to tour mine sites and hold public events, which attracted hundreds of Filipinos. Her communications operation was strong, especially her Facebook page that had 400,000 followers. By the time I met her Lopez had become something of a Filipino folk hero.

The rusting equipment of the Marcopper mine, site of one of world’s worst toxic mining disasters. Photo/Keith Schneider
Continue reading “Gina Lopez: A Philippine Political Story”