Rain, Rain

We’ve gotten a lot of rain here on Colorado’s Front Range of late. And I haven’t even been here the whole time. Maybe Colorado has softened this Seattle boy to a degree. My expectations of sunshine 360 days a year settled in pretty easily. Those 360 days are going to be hard to get this year. I still stick with my mantra of “There’s no bad weather, just poor clothing choices.” But my poor child who has had free reign of the yard as she continues to discover how to walk and negotiate her balance among the tufts of grass has no rain gear. No little slicker to shed the water. No rubber boots to stomp in the puddles with. And worst of all, no understanding of the hypothermic dangers lurking in allowing her to run wild in the rain without some modicum of protection from the deluge.

We just got a flyer in the mail from the city with information about what to do to prepare for flooding, how to handle the floods themselves and what to do after the waters recede. Fortunately, we’re not in a high-risk flood zone, but I can only imagine the concerns weighing on those who had to fight off the waters of two years hence. In fact, I’ve already heard from a friend about how his sump pump failed and he’s had to repeat the process of pulling up soggy carpet from his basement.

But here we are, living in a world where it rains. In a world where we have tried to build structures to protect us from the weather. Usually it works. Usually we can outsmart the elements and create walls that keep us warm and dry. But sometimes those elements sneak by and remind us we are just part of the world. We are just creatures who exist here as the animals do their best to protect themselves from the cold and the wet. Just as our ancient ancestors did their primitive best to do the same.

Thanks for the reminder rain. And thanks for keeping Colorado green for now.

Mountain Passages: Cuba Tres, Bear Salsas

At loose, sort of, in Cuba, Bear drinks in music and art, gets out on the dance floor (with the help of some rum), and wonders why Cubans like us. By Alan Stark

Cuba is about the music and dancing, the people, and their art. Traveling here is an opportunity to observe a very odd government, try their food, and maybe drink a little rum and smoke a cigar or two.

Flamenco LeaderAt eight in the morning the sound of music from the studios across from our hotel dance into and through the room. Almost anywhere in Havana, at any time of day, there is music. And, at whatever time you tumble into bed, you will hear music until you fall asleep. Most of the music I heard was a Latin-Cuban-African-Caribbean mixture that involves a steady beat, at least one singer, drums of all sorts, a lead guitar, and a bass. But beyond that, the additional members of the band can be playing just about anything that makes music.

This is a communist country where the work of musicians is just honorable as the work of professors—that’s a good thing. So, in Cuba, if you qualify for a musical education based on testing, your eventual job for the state will be as a musician. Sort of like being in the Marine Band in DC minus the shaved head, the uniform, and having to play Sousa marches the rest of your career. There is clearly a great deal of music education in Cuba. It wasn’t the intent of this education, but the consequence is bands with folks playing cellos, flutes, and violins accompanying the usual drums and guitars.

I’ll bet that the base player in a band, who is highly skilled, was classically trained—remember that Cuba was basically a Russian satellite for years. Classical music is just a notch below vodka in the Russian value system. The guy working the bass in a given band isn’t some mountain-town loadie who has mastered maybe a solid ten chords he can pound-out all night. The bass line in a Cuban band can be just as interesting as everything else being played. It all contributes to a toe-tapping, butt swinging, stand up and boogie musical experience.

And the dancing—Cubans dance all of the time and are great at it. In the studio across the street from our hotel there was a recital almost every night. It looked like modern dance, with amazing moves to watch. Part of the cultural tour was to see a Cuban Flamenco group one morning. Seven dancers simply rocked the place with intricate Spanish moves with a huge Caribbean heart.

Afterwards the leader spoke with great enthusiasm but she made us a little sad when she said she had to constantly recruit new dancers, because when members of her troupe reached a high level of skill they emigrated. No country can sustain itself when it consistently loses the best and brightest people.

As mountain people we all have some dance moves that we make, usually fueled by alcohol, generally to the beat of the music. Blue Eyes calls my dance moves, “The Bear Shuffle.” It wasn’t working for me when we were taken to a dance studio for an hour-long salsa lesson that started with a couple of shots of rum.

The Salsa beat goes like this: one-two-three-stop, five-six-seven-stop, going forward, backward and then to both sides. The couple shots of rum I had before the lesson didn’t help that much, Salsa dancing pretty much eluded me.

Because this was a cultural “people to people’ trip, and maybe because we were spending a great deal of time drinking rum before dinner, one late-afternoon we were shuttled off to a choral recital in a church. The vocalists were highly skilled, and while the music left me staring the ceiling, there was one point where the conductor had his choir singing in such a way that individual blocks of notes rolled forth like a single wave of sound filled with discrete tones. I’ve never heard a choir do that before and I’d love to hear that again. I might even show for a church choral recital in Boulder one of these days. Probably not, but what a great sound.

Before I get into another subject I know nothing about but appreciate, that being ART, let me digress a little about the Cuban character. I suppose that if I had a huge country north of me that had tried to strangle my government with a dumb embargo, had actually invaded my country, and allegedly tried to assassinate my leader on a number of occasions, I’d be tempted to be highly pissed-off at the US.

Cigar FarmerCubans have every reason to hate us because the embargo didn’t screw up their government; the fat cats always survive embargoes untouched. The Cuban embargo messed up the lives of common people as blanket embargos always do. Embargoes are a quick fix by incompetent politicians much like cops rounding-up all the usual suspects instead of doing the hard work of finding two or three really bad guys (or girls). The President got it right with imposed sanctions against key Russian leaders and oligarchs who went whining to Putin when their assets outside of Russia were frozen.

Cubans actually like us, even after all the hardships we have imposed on them. I’m guessing it’s because we have figured out ways to help them in spite of our stupid embargo. A couple years ago, my friend Steven called in markers from other orthodontists and dental vendors and hauled dental supplies down to Cuba. Blue Eyes took guitar strings and watercolors kits to give away to musicians and kids. The remittances from family members that keep Cubans going are from Cuban-Americans.

But if there is anger at the US it manifests itself as a kind of megalomania. Cuban objects are bigger, better, and more beautiful than anyplace else, and Cubans more skilled and artistic than anyone else. For example, Cuban architecture is beautiful, even though the building is now crumbling to a pile of rubble. Cuban rum is the best in the world but I found, in a highly scientific, week-long experiment, that 18-year-old Cuban rum was a little rough. Cuban Cigars are the best in the world. We had a Cuban famer roll a cigar in front of us, light it up, and pass it around. It was the best cigar I’ve ever tasted. Cuban auto mechanics are the best in the world. The early 50s cars that smoke along the streets are wrecks that keep on rolling based solely on superb repair work, wishful thinking, and wire.

Some of the megalomania is justified, but like any people trying to tell the world that they are as good as anyone else, if not better—it gets old after a while. There is a greatness in these Cubans, they have survived and thrived under a stupid government. It will be amazing to see what they accomplish over the next ten years.

But back to art. Blue Eyes has dragged me to a number of art shows, exhibitions, and museums. I pretend that I’m being taken away from something important like sharpening my skis or turning the garden, but in reality, I always enjoy myself, because I almost always see something transcendent, something, like a well-written paragraph or a line from a poem that just takes me away to a happy place.

We saw twentieth-century paintings in the National Museum of Art and none of it moved me. Maybe it was the Bay of Pigs tanks and missiles in the park across the street that got me off on the wrong foot.  The art was mostly dark and somber—maybe taking itself too seriously. Art historians can prattle on (like architects) endlessly about all the allusions and symbols and sources of inspiration of a particular painting. Once I’ve been grabbed by an artist I find a modicum of this information worthwhile, “But geesus Lady, let’s not spend fifteen minutes on a piece that no one appears to care about except you.”

Cuban flag-2So if you’ve gone to France or Japan to eat or Argentina or Scotland to drink you might be a little disappointed with Cuban comestibles. We ate as a group of American cultural tourists and were generally served family-style a good amount of food. Breakfast was Euro hotel food-piles with the best being eggs cooked fresh on the grill. Lunch, as did dinner, started with a welcome drink and an appetizer such as dishes of croquets and plantain chips that look like potato chips and taste like cardboard. Salad was inevitably sliced tomato, some lettuce or shredded cabbage, cucumbers, and maybe cold green beans dressed with oil and vinegar. Next came plates of roasted pork and lamb and grilled fish. Dessert was almost always flan but flan isn’t interesting enough to eat twice a day.

And dinner, was pretty much the same. I’m sure you could do better with food if you ordered a la carte but don’t go to Cuba for the food, they have a ways to go. Even when I ditched the tour and ate out on my own, the food was still boring. Best guess is that foodie endeavors are tough in a country where the food supply is often limited.

Cuban art and food are so-so. The government is repressive. But go to Cuba for the people—especially the people, the music, the dancing, rum and cigars.

This is the third of a four-part series on Cuba. Read #1 here and #2 here.

Alan Stark is a free lance based in Boulder who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Postcard: Nepal

If you’re like me, it has pained you deeply to read, watch and scroll through the various stories, photographs and videos that have chronicled the devastation resulting from last week’s earthquake in central Nepal. I have only been there once, but I keep thinking of the Nepalis I met on that trip and what might have happened to them last week. They are some of the most beautiful people on earth, inside and out; incredibly welcoming and curious, innocent and strong. I shot this photo of a six-year-old girl who walked up to us in a small village west of the quake’s epicenter and remained for an hour, saying nothing, just smiling and observing. I will never know her fate, but I hope she’s OK.


Photo by Devon O’Neil

Monumental Wilderness in Idaho

Idaho legislators have a plan for a new wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds; conservation groups want a national monument. Who speaks for the land? By Mike Medberry

Once upon a time, Idaho’s forests were green, water ran gin-clear from the mountains and the sky was not cloudy all day. In those days, there was no need for political wilderness. But in the 1940s, 1950s and early ’60s, people like Mardy Murie, Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson and Wallace Stegner felt compelled to protect the last remaining wild places. Logging, mining and road building were rampant and wildlands were being diminished like “snow on a hot summer’s day,” as conservationist John Muir once said.

Howard Zahniser wrote, shortly before dying: “I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.” In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson enacted the Wilderness Act, seeking to protect unroaded land and 9 million acres were immediately designated as wilderness areas. In those days, all of society seemed to look forward to a 4-day workweek with less work to occupy our time—we needed wilderness–but in 2015 neither wilderness nor the workweek present such a black-and-white question.


In March, U.S. Representative Mike Simpson and Senator Jim Risch introduced the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act, a bill that would designate 275,665 acres of wilderness in three areas of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains. This bill has been in discussion for 30 years, but the current proposal, a re-crafted version of Simpson’s CIEDRA legislation (Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act), which would have designated 332,928 acres in the Boulder-White Clouds, is much smaller than other plans over the years. The legislation shrank by 60,301 acres over several days of recent discussions with snowmobile and heli-skiing interests. Compromises have been traded for a dozen years, including, of late, attempts to win support from Risch, who is said to have blocked the last version of the bill in the Senate. Will this be the bill?

The new Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill allows more land to be used by off-road vehicle (ORV) and snowmobile riders by eliminating some roadless land from wilderness designation but defines fewer exceptions to wilderness under the Wilderness Act, making the areas smaller while gaining begrudging support from some wilderness purists.

Simpson and Risch intoduced their wilderness bill when they heard that President Obama would proclaim a national monument in the Boulder White Cloud Mountains. That was a frightening and nebulous proposal that worried many of their constituents in Central Idaho. The monument was said to protect the ecosystem overlaying the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, but it didn’t define exactly what that protection meant. It could mean anything and the president had the power to protect the land under the Antiquities Act of 1906 by proclamation. It could be accomplished before anyone really knew what it would do. It would be fait accompli in a year and that threat prompted snowmobile supporters and off road motor vehicle users to react. In 2014, 95 percent of the voters who voted in Custer County, which is adjacent to the Boulder White Cloud Mountains, opposed  the monument.

“We do need wilderness,” Sandra Mitchell, public lands director of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association told me in February. “It is not a completely bad idea, however I believe there is enough wilderness in Idaho.” Mitchell is a veteran of the “wilderness wars”  the ’80s and ’90s and was an aide to former Senator Steve Symms. Consequently she is careful with her words but mostly clear on the message.

Before about 1998, logging and mining were seen as the biggest conflicts on roadless areas, but today logging in Idaho is only a small percentage of what it was in 1990 and mining has many more regulations attached to it after years of environmental litigation and wrangled-out compromises. Today the issues in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains are mostly recreation-based conflicts.

“There are a lot of compromises in Simpson’s (new) bill,” said Dani Mazzotta, Central Idaho Associate for the Idaho Conservation League (ICL). “It’s tough, and over a decade it has been getting smaller every time we see it. We don’t oppose it but we’re disappointed in the trade offs that are being made now. However, the national monument proposal has legs and strong support.” As she said, a national monument does not protect wilderness. Mazziotta added that she thought that “President Obama will listen to all interests. It will be pretty balanced. The big thing is that ICL will continue to support the national monument and build more support for it.”

But compromise is the name of the game in Idaho today. One of the reasons that Simpson again raised issues in central Idaho in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additiions Act is that President Obama is considering proclaiming a national monument over the same area and Simpson doesn’t like the uncertainty of the president’s proposal. The president visited Idaho on January 21 of this year and Simpson’s bill was offered just two days later for discussion.

Lindsay Slater, chief of staff for Rep. Simpson said that Simpson “…wouldn’t have suggested the bill if he thought that he couldn’t get it done before the monument would be declared.” John Podesta, known as the knuckle-rapping master for the administration and counselor to President Obama, gave Simpson six to nine months to get his bill passed before the president would move on the monument idea. “Rep. Simpson has met with the affected groups and he continues to push for a bill that works for everyone. We think that an Idaho based solution would be better than a Washington D.C. plan,” Slater added.


The national monument would be proclaimed by the president under the Antiquities Act of 1906 but it’s unclear exactly what it would protect. Nonetheless, everyone has big plans for it. Call it the president’s smorgasbord proclamation, a political compromise favoring the president and his supporters. The proclamation would most likely support mountain bikes in roadless areas recommended by the Forest Service as wilderness, would support the concept of wilderness and probably would offer snowmobiles and ORVs a number of routes within the approximately 600,000 acres. Simpson and Risch’s bills would create three new Wilderness Areas that exclude mountain bikes, motorized vehicles, and allow other adjacent roadless areas to be managed for other uses. The wilderness areas that would be designated under Simpson’s legislation are the Hemingway–Boulders Wilderness (67,998 acres), White Cloud Wilderness (90,769 acres), and the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness (116,898 acres).

Mitchell laughed when asked whether she supported the national monument or Simpson’s bill. “It’s not a decision that the recreation coalition ever envisioned. But it is our reality now and we are working on it. We’ve worked on the monument proposal and we’ve put together excellent material. We went to D.C. to meet with the Under Secretary (U.S. Department of Agriculture), to CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality) and to the Pew foundation. We’ve taken our message and we’ve told folks how we feel about the monument. I’ve done everything but crying big and if I thought that would make a difference I’d cry!” Mitchell would gain more out of Simpson’s wilderness bill because much of the land that is used by snowmobiles or ORVs was eliminated from the wilderness. That was not the case in earlier versions of CIEDRA.

According to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report on national monuments, the Act requires designation of  “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” But that statement from the Antiquities Act has been interpreted rather liberally over the years since it was written. Consider the 1.9 million acre Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument in which, with the stroke of his pen, President Bill Clinton zeroed out an very valuable coal mine and supported a huge recreation industry. In Alaska, President Jimmy Carter, with the support of his Interior Secretary, Gov. Cecil Andrus from Idaho, reserved 100 million acres of land which led to a negotiation protecting 56 million acres of wilderness, as well as national parks and national refuges. That negotiation process also opened up other areas for specific purposes like logging and oil production. Carter said that he had been forced to use the Antiquities Act by Congress’ failure to act in a reasonable time to deal with the land issue in Alaska.

Those are exactly the circumstances today in Idaho: Congress hasn’t acted in a responsible period of time to deal with Central Idaho’s public lands. Simpson has attempted to pass legislation since 2004 on the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, the creme-de-la-crème of Idaho’s unprotected mountain ranges. Legions of Congress members have considered the issue of Idaho’s roadless areas since 1986 (Reps. John Seiberling, Peter Kostmayer, Bruce Vento, Larry LaRocco, Morris Udall, and Sens. James McClure, Steve Symms, and Larry Craig among them). No decision could be made on the roadless forested areas in Idaho and advocates for wilderness faced-off against advocates for logging, mining and grazing. A report put together with funding from the State of Idaho in the 1992s recommended against deciding on the wilderness issue because wilderness was too contentious to solve. And there it is has lingered and festered over the years.

The Antiquities Act was designed to protect federal lands and resources quickly; presidents of both political parties have proclaimed monuments. Many of the 178 monuments were controversial, some have been converted to National Parks or National Reserves or other categories, and none of the proclamations needed to follow environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA normally requires a time consuming and costly Environmental Impact Statements to justify significant changes to the environment. The Antiquities Act was used by Pres. George W. Bush in 2009 to create the 60.9 million acres of the Marina Archipelago National Monument near Guam. Pres. Herbert Hoover, : also a Republican, created the Death Valley National Monument and Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Grand Canyon National Monument. Both of these monuments have been expanded and converted into National Parks. In 1987, Pres. Ronald Reagan created the El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico and in 2000 Pres. Clinton expanded the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. So far Obama has designated 16 national monuments, including, most recently, Pullman town in Chicago, the Honouliuli Internment Camp near Pearl Harbor, and the 21,000-acre Browns Canon in Central Colorado.

In other words, Simpson’s worries about a national monument being proclaimed in Idaho are well founded. But Simpson knows well the political strategies on the art of war and wilderness. One political sleight-of-hand might be to change an Idaho national monument into some other land protection category through legislation following its proclamation, as Simpson did with the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Reserve. That national monument became, in part, a legislated national reserve. And the law affirming it assured ORV advocates that their use would continue in Craters of the Moon, contingent upon a travel plan being developed.

Another complication is that Senators Crapo and Risch offered a bill, S. 228, in January which would make the process of proclaiming a national monument far more difficult than it is now. That bill would require the approval of Congress and legislation in the state where the national monument is proposed before any monument can be approved. It would also require compliance with NEPA. Anger over creation of the Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943 altered implementation of the Antiquities Act in Wyoming; it required the support of Congress for any national monument crafted by the president in that state. That provision proved effective in eliminating presidential power over national monuments in Wyoming. Passage of S. 228 or inserting it into other legislation would likely have the same effect in Idaho or elsewhere if it is universal. However, Obama would most likely veto it.


After passage of the Wilderness Act, the U.S. Forest Service created a nationwide roadless area policy  that looked at all of the unroaded Forest Service lands. Conservationists challenged that policy  twice and the land under study increased both times. Congress sought to resolve the wilderness issue in 1986 by designating 8.6 million acres in 20 states, and in those 20 states they largely succeeded. However, many Western states, including Idaho, were left in the lurch with outstanding roadless areas in contention for wilderness designation by 2015. Idaho had roughly 9 million acres of roadless areas, in addition to 4.5 million acres that were already designated as wilderness. Moreover, the Bureau of Land Management’s organic law was amended in 1976 and protected all of the inventoried unroaded lands in that agency’s desert land as Wilderness Study Areas. Every WSA, of which there were 1.8 million acres in Idaho, was protected, not by a mere policy as the Forest Service had done, but specifically by the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) until they were studied and “released” from, or protected, as wilderness.

With 4.5 million acres of Wilderness Areas, Idaho is currently in third place in the 50 states for the amount of designated wilderness, behind Alaska’s 57 million acres and California’s 15 million acres. There are now 109.5 million acres of designated wilderness in the United States. Idaho still has about 11 million acres of wild, unroaded land that qualify as wilderness out of a total of 53 million acres of land in the state. Eight point five percent (8.5%) of the state, has been designated as wilderness under the Wilderness Act, including the Frank Church River of No Return, Selway-Bitterroot, Gospel Hump, Sawtooth, Craters of the Moon, Seven Devils and Owyhee (517,000 acres of BLM land) wilderness areas. Is 8.5 percent enough wilderness for a state that has another 11 million acres of undeveloped land?

In his recent guest opinion in the Idaho Statesman, Eric Melson, former program director of the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, wrote the following: “…The traditional conservation demographic has shifted. Instead of just backpackers, hunters, anglers, boaters, and climbers speaking up for healthy landscapes, mountain bikers are voicing their concern about access to and protection of America’s wild places. Adrenalin-fueled activities piloted by younger activists should now have a seat at the table… National monument status is sensical, does not need legislative approval, and has room to negotiate travel panning for all parties, especially mountain bikers.” That states the position of the nouveau advocates for mountain bikes on the national monument for Idaho but it fails to account for the political element of wilderness designations.

In fact, Rep Simpson stated in his most recent statement (3/9/15) that “Allowing corridors in the three proposed wilderness areas is non-negotiable, and the three wildernesses in my bill will each remain undivided and without corridors. I am certain that anything else will result in a monument.”

Brad Books, deputy regional director for The Wilderness Society, took a different twist. “We are not working on a wilderness bill for the Boulder White Clouds,” he said. “It’s all been talk, and talk is cheap. The proof is in the pudding. It’s not a Congress that we think will support a lot of wilderness.” TWS, ICL, along with Wood River Bicycle Coalition and the International Mountain Biking Association have a formed a firm agreement with each other, signed as a Memorandum of Understanding, committing them to work on the national monument.

Brooks laid out the plan for the monument which he termed was “a very real and credible proposal that has the attention of the president and the Administration… We’ve created a coalition of support that is quite broad: recreation groups, elected officials, sportsmen organizations and conservation groups. One of the things that I like about the monument is the watershed protection. But what makes the Boulder White Clouds special is the people, uses, and the land itself.”

Brooks mentioned that the East Fork of the Salmon River has the longest migration route for anadromous fish and the highest elevation spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead. “It also includes the entire East Fork of the Salmon River drainage, allows a variety of recreation uses from mountain bikers to hunters and all of them would have a place in the monument.” The monument might include comprehensive protections for the region’s wildlife, fisheries, wild lands, recreation, and historic values and a management plan would determine where mechanized and motorized use would be permitted in a travel plan.

Gary MacFarland, Director of Friends of the Clearwater in Moscow, gave the process his organization’s perspective. “Both proposals have problems and I find a lot of irony in them. There is less mountain biking allowed in certain places than in the monument. That’s weird and making a deal with the mountain bikers is a strategic blunder.” MacFarland’s  group supports 1.5 million acres of wild areas in North Idaho. “The wilderness bill is too small but it’s better than anything I’ve seen before because it doesn’t include all of the special language that CIEDRA had. It’s the cleanest wilderness language bill that we’ve seen from Simpson; it’s cleaner than what passed in the River of No Return Wilderness Bill in 1980.”

George Nickas, director of Wilderness Watch, concurs with Macfarland. He has worked for more than 20 years at maintaining the quality of designated wilderness areas and runs a national organization doing that work. He said that “The national monument proposal eviscerates the land with all of the ORV and mountain bike paths. Simpson’s bill provides wilderness, and it doesn’t mandate a bunch of crap like it once did. I think that the land in Simpson’s current bill would be better protected than it would be under a monument. But the protected land should be about twice as big.”

Regardless of all of the disagreement, The Wilderness Act defines a wilderness as an area “…where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain… (It) retain(s) its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” When the law passed in 1964 it allowed grazing, hiking, river boating, horseback riding, but no motorized vehicles nor bicycles, and it allowed each state to manage wildlife. There were other compromises in specific areas as they were designated and in the River of No Return Wilderness, jet boats were allowed to run up the Salmon River, airplanes were allowed to continue landing within the wilderness and a large area was reserved for cobalt mining within the wilderness if the need for cobalt ever became essential. Still the Wilderness Act has been the envy of many nations, providing inspiration from South Africa to Canada and India to Costa Rica. It has harbored animals and plants that can live nowhere else, and it remains a place in the imagination where all wild things may continue living in a warming climate on an overpopulated planet.

Tom Pomeroy a long-time supporter of wilderness and a resident in the Big Wood River Valley between the Smoky and Boulder Mountains, provides a more passionate view of unroaded lands. “I love Wilderness,” Pomeroy wrote in an email. “It’s the best and most important resource that Idaho has! It lasts forever and is available for anyone who wants to go there to explore, enjoy, and be grateful that it still exists. I know that compromise is part of the game, but it’s so short-sighted to always reduce the issue to what one user group says they need. That’s why 95 percent of the continental U.S. is already roaded and gone. The mountain bikers are just another new user group wanting to tear across the landscape so they can say that they ‘did’ it, snap a picture, and then get back home because they’re so busy. Many don’t want to take the time to enjoy the land on its own terms and think what’s best for wildlife, the future, and ever-increasing threats that a rapidly expanding civilization creates.”


Whatever you think about Idaho’s wilderness, none can say that the debate lacks passion. But since 1964 the human population has grown substantially, forests have burned, the Gross Domestic Product has climbed, the poverty rate has hovered at around 14.5 percent nationwide, the world has grown warmer and wetter and no one dares to dream of a four-day work week anymore. Recreation is mostly a lounging trip on a tour ship in the Caribbean, a day-trip on a mountain bike, or on a motorized vehicle riding up and down snowy mountains to gather bragging rights. A few hikers, rafters, kayakers and horseback riders — seekers of solitude, wildlife and untrammeled landscapes — seem to value wilderness these days but they are quickly growing old. The greatest value of wild places is their connectivity to each other and the refuge of protected fish and wildlife habitat that only wilderness guarantees.

Simpson is bucking his natural colleagues to get a valuable job done, to protect the wildest places that he knows in Idaho, and he is accepting compromises in a few beautiful places where some don’t think he should. But Simpson is no shrinking violet. He’s marching the direction that his heart tells him is the right way. Idaho Conservation League in Idaho and the Wilderness Society, at the national level have set course for a national monument. Both have strengths and weaknesses but the monument is ill defined. Conservationists are at the crossroads, as Simpson moves toward a final conclusion that will resolve the character of the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains. Simpson’s supporters are now solid. The primary unanswered question is what President Obama will say to Simpson’s bill that deals with the Boulder White Cloud Mountains.

Simpson advances his new legislation with compromises that recognize the facts on the ground in this conservative state and lead toward completion of a job that began when all the forests still were green, the water ran gin-clear from the mountains, and the sky was not cloudy all day.

—Mike Medberry worked for The Wilderness Society as its Utah Director for three years; was the Legislative Director, Water Quality Representative, and Conservation Director for Idaho Conservation League for nine years; and was the Director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council for two years. After that he wrote a book about having a stroke in the Craters of the Moon National Monument and has written numerous opinion and non-fiction articles for local and regional magazines. 

Photo by Ed Cannady/Idaho Conservation League

Mountain Passages: Cuba, It’s Complicated

Landed in Cuba, Bear explores the crumbling beauty of Havana, enjoys the country’s fabulous people, and ponders how such an ineffectual government can work. By Alan Stark.

“It’s complicated,” A Cuban says with a half-smile on her face.

Blue-Eyes and I are on a cultural tour of Havana and the western mountain region including the town of Vinales. We signed up for to the trip about three days before President Obama announced a thaw in US and Cuban relations. There was nothing prescient about this, we just wanted to visit Cuba. The Euros and Canadians who have been coming here for years are now all pissed off. “We wanted to see Cuba before the hoards of Americans arrived,” a Canadian said.

What the hoards are going to see first in central Havana is a city that appears to be crumbling before their eyes. Most of the buildings have had no maintenance in fifty or sixty years and are literally falling apart, brick by brick. The streets and sidewalks are in ill-repair. In a way it feels like you visiting someplace in Eastern Europe just after the end of the World War II.

A couple days ago, an architecture professor from the University led us on a walking tour of the buildings around the Park Central. Architects have the unique ability to look at a perfect dump of a building and talk about interesting features, and often ramble on endlessly about the original builders and owners, the period in which the structure was built, the construction materials—in short—more information than anyone save an architect, would want or care to know. Our professor stayed true to form. She would point at a crumbling building over her shoulder and she would say, “And this beautiful buildings…” We looked at thirty or so buildings in our tour, twenty of them were wrecks; some interesting wrecks, but wrecks none-the-less.

CrumblingBeyond the buildings that are falling down, a full a third of the buildings in central Havana, beginning with the National Capitol are “under restoration.” But many of these restorations looked like the crews were pulled off to work on something else shortly after they got started. It is almost like there are a hundred crews working on a thousand restoration projects. So some plumbers are working on one building and across town a water main breaks,  the plumbing crew gets pulled off the restoration to fix the water main and after that they are rotated to an entirely different project, because the government runs almost everything…badly.

The crews that I saw looked like they were really working, but this is a communist country where everyone is paid the same salary, somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-five dollars a month. The local cliché goes something like this, “They pretend to pay me, and I pretend to work.” It was explained that most everyone has a second source of income that involve all sorts of enterprises that are mostly legal. Before you get to scratching your head about the salary, realize that everything in Cuba is subsidized, or as one Cuban said, “We have nothing, we have everything.”

Once into the more modern part of the city to the west Havana looks like your average Latin American city, or Anchorage, where there is only one zoning official for the entire town and she spends most of her time sipping espresso in a café and laughing. Central Havana needs some work.

singerThink of that laughing zoning official and you see how the average Cuban thinks. There is the GOVERNMENT that is omnipresent and clearly oppressive and then there is the important stuff like my family, my friends, my neighborhood, eating, drinking, screwing, laughing, singing, dancing and maybe my work.  The Cubans are proud of the Revolution that made for a much better and more equitable society but they don’t appear to give much of a shit about the government. They simply tolerate it.

Cubans are fabulous people. I stopped on the sidewalk to let an older man on a crutch pass in front of me. As he passed he looked me in the eye, smiled, and with  his free hand patted me on the belly. That momentary connection with a stranger is the way Cubans interact with everyone.

We were sitting in a restaurant drinking Cubatas that are much better than Cuba libres, because they are made with dark rum instead of bar rum. The band was having a grand time as we were. Another crowd came into the room and started Salsa dancing as they moved to their tables. It was a sight to see…one, two three, pause, five, six seven, pause. Damn, Cubans can dance.

I’m writing this on a table in the back of a Chinese bus in the mountains outside of Vinales. The guitarists, and singer who were playing during our lunch, got on the bus to ride with us back to town. The bus is filled with song

P1000253As mountain people, we think of ourselves as laid-back, maybe even pride ourselves on being pretty relaxed about most everything. But compared to Cubans we’re like MBAs in a bank vault. Cubans are relaxed and happy in a way I’ve never seen before. It could be the climate or the culture but I think it’s the GOVERNMENT. When all your basic needs are met by free services and subsidies, worrying about providing for yourself goes away. The GOVERNMENT will provide everything, plus twenty-one dollars a month.

So here in Cuba, you have the center of the national capital basically falling apart due to good intentions, overreaching, bad planning, underfinancing, and unmotivated workers. And yet this government has created possibly the highest quality of life for almost all of its citizens that can be found anywhere in Latin America.

And you have happy people on what appears to be a verdant island having a wonderful time with one another and anyone who visits. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious; they just light up a room when they come into it. But at the same time they speak of the collapse of the Soviet Union and say things like, “And then there was no one to take care of us.“

mojitoCubans expect all these services from the government but have absolutely no motivation to work for the Government. However, it is these same unmotivated people who work like crazy for their second incomes and start small business subject to ridiculous taxes. Some of these Cubans would leave this wonderful island in a heartbeat if they could figure a way to do it without taking a long ride in a small boat.

It’s complicated.

Alan Stark is a wordsmith who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.

This is the second in a four-part series. Read the first installment here.

Postcard: Valdez, Alaska

I don’t think it’s possible to call one place the best ski zone on earth. There are simply too many radical places to ski. However, if someone put a gun to my head and threatened to pull the trigger if I didn’t vote for one and only one, I would say Valdez, Alaska. And I would feel good about it. This shot happened by chance a few years back around this time of spring. I was standing on a peak and saw this guy start arcing down a different peak across the way. No idea who it was. But I wanted to be him and I still kind of do.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Confessions of a Non-wanna-be Guidebook Writer

The tale of the old Old Green Beast or the horror (and occasional joy) of a climber who became a guidebook writer. By Cameron M. Burns

When I was a young climber, I never ever, ever wanted to write a guidebook.

Never ever.

I hated them.

As Steve Roper so famously wrote in a classic guide to the Sierra Nevada: “kick the cairns over and let people discover it all for themselves,” or something like that. I agree. I’ll always agree with “Ropero,” as Layton Kor called him.

It came about in a silly way. In 1988, a bunch of my high school friends were starting to bolt (by hand) routes at a crag in New Mexico. We all got in on the act, spending hours hand-drilling bolts in the iron-hard basalt. It was horrendous work. But a few months later, a few members of the local climbing club, the Los Alamos Mountaineers, wanted information on the routes. So I stapled together 18 pages, gave them to about six blokes who corrected a few things, Xeroxed twenty copies, and set them on the desk at the local “climbing” store. They were gone in a day.

Hmm. That was that, I thought. Done with that crap.


Within six months I was cruising the Sierra Nevada with Steve Porcella (see Alpinist 48).

After 65 routes the summer of 1989, we thought a new guidebook (to just the fourteeners) might be a worthwhile project. Roper had revamped an old edition of A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra for the Sierra Club (about the 4th or 5th edition, several of which had different titles (Hervey Voge’s 1954 edition had the same title, but the 1972 edition, for example, was simply called Mountaineer’s Guide)), and the route descriptions and grades were interesting, to say the least. In the summer of 1990, we headed back into the Sierra, the Whitney region. Somehow, we timed our trip with one that Dave Wilson and Galen Rowell were planning, and we decided to do a sort-of foursome. We met in Lone Pine the night before the hike in.

Over dinner, we got to chatting about a possible guidebook to the fourteeners.

“You know how Steve graded all those routes, right?” Galen asked while skewering a lump of potato (he’d known Steve since the fourth grade in Berkeley). “He flew over the range with a pair of binoculars and declared, ‘that can’t be a Class 5. I’m calling it a Class 4’.” The story seemed completely plausible because the stuff we were climbing in 1989 had grades that were quite outta whack with what was in the guidebook.

On the East Face of Whitney, Steve and I watched from 200 feet away while Dave and Galen finished off a route Galen and Kike Arnal had tried the previous year—Left Wing Extremist—named for the chicken-winging they did on the climb. (We failed on our new route.)

In 1990, Steve and I wrote a 450-page guide to California’s 14ers with about 150 routes in it. I remember just printing out the Word document was more than anything I could ever afford. But we also knew no one would want that—it was mostly boring climbing history. With fourteeners, people want to just bag summits, not know about some incredibly obscure 5.9 lying 15 miles from a trailhead.

CA14ers(1e)We pared it down to 92 pages—the easiest route or voie normal on each peak. We sent it to a half dozen publishers and none of them wanted anything to do with it. So we self-published California Fourteeners (Palisades Press, 1991, 92 pages), 5,000 copies done at a print shop in Great Falls, Montana under the auspices of our own company (Palisades Press). It was a funky little purple book, that to this day is one of my proudest achievements (then again, eating a six-egg omlette is a massively proud moment for me).

Four years later, George Meyers of Chockstone Press approached us and gave us a publishing deal for the 92-pager—20 percent of gross sales because it was selling so well (something like 4,000 copies in four years). George’s was the second edition: (Chockstone Press, 1995, 92 pages).

(In 1998, the Mountaineers Books republished a much bigger version: Climbing California’s Fourteeners: 183 Routes to the 15 Highest Peaks (1998, 272 pages). Like the first version, it went into a second edition (Climbing California’s Fourteeners: The Route Guide to the 15 Highest Peaks (2008, 272 pages). The full 450-page version remains like garlic to a vampire—appropriately untouched.)

While all these books were happening (1991–95), I’d moved across the west chasing various journalism jobs. My girlfriend Ann and I ended up in Aspen when I got a job at the Aspen Times in 1992, thankfully, with subsidized housing. After three years there (and having payed off my student loans for architecture school), we got married, and I headed to Patagonia with two English climbers. We climbed a handful of routes, and I came home in early 1996—completely stinking broke. Not two nickels to rub together.

After landing at Denver International, Ann took me straight to George’s place in Evergreen, Colo. Several hours of talk ensued, and I walked out of his garage with four book contracts in hand: a Colorado ice climbers guide, a guide to Independence Pass, a guide to Escalante, and a guide to climbing in the Telluride area. Luckily (for both me and climbers everywhere), I was smart enough to realize I knew very little about three of those areas, but I had been doing quite a bit of ice climbing. We chatted on the phone, agreed both of us would tear up the Escalante, Indy Pass, and Telluride contracts—but I thought I could pull together an ice guide pretty easily because I really did know most of it.

The only issue, I soon learned, was Jack Roberts. He’d started in on a Colorado ice guide, but George explained that Jack’s progress was glacially slow, and, in all honesty, he didn’t think Jack would actually ever finish it. Jack, of course, was doing all sorts of wild routes in Alaska and other places, so that was completely understandable.

I went back to Aspen, and took up a job shoveling snow off roofs in Snowmass Village—I had to earn a buck.


COiceIn late March 1996, George and I talked again. He wanted a Colorado ice guide manuscript in three weeks and Jack was on another climbing trip, or generally unavailable. I quit my incredibly lucrative career as a snow shoveler, jumped in my truck, and spent a week driving around the entire state, taking photos of well-known ice climbs that—since it was early April—were coming unglued and falling to pieces. Three weeks later, I’d finished the manuscript, crappy as it was, to the first Colorado ice guide—“The Old Green Beast,” I’d later call it. It was about 40,000 words—no big length because words seem to flow out of me like some kind of puss. We used to do easily 12,000 words a week at the Times, sometimes more, and my editors would often complain I’d written too much.

Jon Klusmire, a friend who worked at the Times, recently noted in a Facebook post: “As one of those Aspen Times editors, this is how I remember describing Cam’s approach to writing: ‘It’s like crapping in a tub. Back up and let ’er fly.’” Grusmire (as we used to call him) is always spot on.

In the fall of 1997, The Old Green Beast came out. It was less a point of pride than I would have ever imagined. In fact, throwing a guidebook for an entire state together in three weeks, with one week of on-the-ground research (even if I knew most areas), was sort of like performing brain surgery for the first time using Brain Surgery for Dummies as your guiding light.

Not a great idea. I was scared when anyone picked it up.


In the winter of 1997–98, climbing with Jesse Harvey in the Fisher Towers, we ran into three young climbers from Crested Butte sitting around a campfire. We talked climbing.

“So you guys like the Fishers?” Jesse asked.

“Yeah,” one of them said. “But we’ve got the new Cam Burns ice guide and we’ve been doing a lot of ice lately.”

My entire scalp rotated 30 degrees back on my skull, eyebrows lifting as if hauled toward the sky by an invisible crane. I waited several moments, then asked, “Is the book any good?”

The kid shrugged: “I think so, although we’ve only done a dozen routes in it so far.”

Jesse leaned over, and held the back of his hand up against his mouth so, ostensibly, the lads couldn’t hear him. But being a cheeky bastard, he said it loud enough so they could: “Cam, didn’t you say you wrote that book in two weeks?”

One of the Butteans looked at us curiously. He heard part of the wonderful commentary by my best climbing partner at the time (a somewhat cherished position at the time, since I led everything).

Thankfully the lad from the Butte hadn’t quite heard the entire comment. I swung an angry foot at Jesse, then announced it was bedtime as we had to get up and fix a few pitches in the morning. Oh, yes, and I had to go take a piton hammer to my friend’s head.


Over Valentine’s weekend in 1998, my wife and I hiked into a climb near Lake City. Three other climbers ahead of us were standing at the base of the route we wanted to do, and they were scouring the Old Greener. I did a quick 180 and told Ann, “We’re leaving. Run. Run!”

“What? We just got here.”

I bolted along the post-holed trail, gear clanking like an Indian dishwalla.

“They’ve got the Beast,” I yelled back at Ann. “Run.”

She tripped over the rope, now flopping around her feet, and gave me a stare that would’ve melted an ice climbing guidebook—even one with some bad mistakes. We got in the truck (also green), and buggered off to Ouray.

“Well, that certainly was fun,” Ann said as I drove. “What if we run into some ice climbers with a Tolstoy or, God forbid, an Ed Abbey?”



A year or two later, Jack Robert’s Colorado ice climbing guide came out. It was really, really well done. But at a trade show, a good friend, Brian Litz—the publisher of Jack’s book—told me he’d been over to Jack’s Boulder home one day and found Jack at a keyboard with The Old Green Beast open, and Jack copying the Green Beast ver batim. Brian flipped, he told me at the trade show, and explained to Jack that you can’t do such a thing in writing. (If you study the mistakes in The Old Green Beast, some of them are repeated in Jack’s first book—like, for example, a route in Redstone that Duane Raleigh pointed out was horribly incorrect in the Beast (“In your own backyard,” Duane appropriately and correctly chided)).

But I didn’t mind the situation. Jack’s second edition was far, far superior to the first two books out there, and Jack and I later climbed together at Lincoln Falls.

Ice climbing with Jack was like watching a gazelle outrun a cheetah in the Serengeti. Ice climbing with me was like watching a sanitarium patient fumble with a walker. Besides, Jack was a real climber. I was oozing puss.

K&KForget the Beast. I was already onto several more books, including the second guidebook to Kilimanjaro & Mount Kenya: A Climbing and Trekking Guide (The Mountaineers Books, 1998, 176 pages); Selected Climbs in the Desert Southwest (The Mountaineers Books, 1999, 240 pages); 50 Hikes in Colorado (Norton, 2003, 208 pages); and later, Kilimanjaro & East Africa (The Mountaineers Books, 2006, 240 pages).

As well as several books of stories, chapters of books for other people, ghost-writing material for people, magazine articles and columns, gear companies’ material, and much more.


What strikes me looking back is that while writing all this stuff, I kept a full-time job the entire time. Research was done on vacation time, and it was always go, go, go—mostly on weekends. Mistakes are inevitable, as I’ve read in some of the not-so-friendly comments online, but I’ve always told critics, “hey, if you don’t like it, try writing your own. I’m sure it’ll be much better anyway.”

The Old Green Beast, though, was special. It came during one of those moments in life when you’re just living for the climbing, not giving a damn about the next buck but needing one anyway. Surviving any way you can. And seeing the world.

And Jack was always giving me story ideas for the UK magazines I wrote for. I scooped everyone on the news of Jeff Lowe’s Octopussy because of Jack, and later won a Colorado Press Association award because of that story. I never had a chance to thank him.

I miss his warm smile, his humble demeanor, and his friendliness when I’d show up at Gary Neptune’s shop. He was always good value, top shelf, as were his books. Well, his second edition, at least. The first had a bit too much of the Old Green Beast in it.

Mountain Passages: Cuba Libre!

Our erstwhile reporter jets off to Cuba with a headful of politics, art, music, and questions about what it will be like for an American to travel in a nation that has been closed off for so long. By Alan Stark

While we are waiting at Miami International Airport (MIA), a number of thoughts rumble around my head regarding Cuba. I’m wondering which of them will prove to be true when I get there, and if any of them will prove to be utter horsepucky. That and the knowledge that “MIA” means something entirely different to me, and I hope it’s not the case during our 45-minute charter flight to Havana.

My thoughts revolve around politics, the arts, and the people of Cuba.

As soon as I think about Cuba, Castro’s iconic shaggy appearance just looms in my mind. It is as if Castro is to Cuba like the Pope is to the Catholic Church. Odd that I don’t think of an island nation with a speckled history of freedom and oppression, but I instead think of one banana republic dictator who has always appeared a little larger than life, in a John Wayneish sort of way, as he ranted from a podium for hours at a time.

cuba apartmentsNext I think of the pre-Castro Cuba that was essentially a Mafia colony—a sort of island Las Vegas. Next come thoughts of the highly courageous, clever, and ultimately successful guerrilla war that toppled Batista. This was in many ways a case study for overthrowing a dictator.  And then, finally, the Cuban missile crisis comes to mind. At that time, my family lived close to the DC border in Maryland, not far from Bolling Air Force Base. On that October night when it seemed the world was about to blow up, I watched a great number of planes in the pattern and landing at Bolling—many more than usual. I was just a kid, but I remember thinking that maybe they were bringing in troops to protect the Capitol. Now I think those planes were really there to evacuate political leaders and their families—odd how you get more cynical with age.

It’s alleged that Castro isn’t much of a commie, rather that communism was a dogma of convenience to him. Brother Raul, who is now in power, is the serious communist. But Raul, since taking power in 2011, has overseen a great deal of common sense politics. This isn’t a place for a political rant, but a dictatorship is a dictatorship. It is the American reaction to Castro’s control of Cuba that makes me crazy. Embargoes are one of the worst ideas since Comcast. The people in power aren’t hurt by embargoes, but everyone else in the country is. I travel to Cuba with the belief that our embargo of Cuba has been a very bad idea.

Guban SingerTrying to explain how Cuban music sounds is like describing individual pieces of a puzzle without being able to see the image of the completed puzzle on the box. The Denver jazz station KUVO will occasionally play a piece from Cuba that I often find intriguing enough to stop fiddling with whatever is on my desk or workbench and listen. The music feels like fun—it draws you in and makes you feel like you would want to be right there, standing at the bar, toe tapping with a drink in hand, and watch and listen to the musicians playing.

So I travel to Cuba thinking I’ll very much like the music that I hear. That I’ll buy a stack of CDs long before it occurs to me that we may not have a CD player in The Creak House anymore. Meaning that the only place I’ll play them once or twice is in the car that also may or may not have a CD player. I should have checked this all out before I left.

And art? If you look around The Creak House where we live in Boulder, there are objects sitting in alcoves, on tables, and hung on the walls, done by artists and craftspeople (sometimes not the same) from all over the world. A bowl from Japan filled with round pebbles from a beach in Iceland would sort of give a clue about our artistic tastes. I’m the last person in the world to discuss ART— Joan, my neighbor, and former gallery owner, bristles whenever the word comes out of my mouth. When it comes to describing my artistic taste I’m tantamount to a pirate turned loose in a palace—if something catches my eye I then decide whether or not I like it. And then I move on. If I really like it and can afford it (often two very different scenarios) I sometimes come back and buy the piece. But, in our relationship, it is Blue Eyes who usually buys the art that we have agreed on.

We agree on our art purchases in the following manner:

“You like it?”


“I do.”

“Okay, but no foul, no penalty. Right?

“Right, we should both like it…too bad all your taste is in your mouth.”


But every once in a while, Blue Eyes asks the question, and I immediately see what she sees in the piece and wink at her. A Hopi mudhead kachina we found in Scottsdale, of all places, now sits in an alcove in the bathroom. He has his own little light above his feathered head, and sometimes on a cold winter’s morning, I turn on the light and look at him and smile. Sometimes Mudhead smiles back.

Will we come back with any art or crafts from Cuba? I doubt it. While Blue Eyes says there are plenty of places left in The Creak House for displaying more pieces, we have both agreed that we need to get rid of some of our stuff. But that’s an entirely different story, most likely delusional and not worth telling.

cuba streetsweeperI’ve been told the Cuban people dislike our government and love us as a people. That’s a thought I can get behind and it is not one unique to the Cubans. This isn’t a place to rant or justify our government but this, and the next few notes from Cuba will be an opportunity to make some comparisons and maybe take a guess as to what will happen next in Cuba.

Join me?

This is the first of a three-part series on Cuba. Alan Stark is wordsmith who lives with this blue-eyed person and her dog in both Boulder and Breckenridge.

Postcard: Trailblazer

Swiss avalanche guru Manuel Genswein swung through Colorado last week, and we got out for a ski tour just north of the Continental Divide. It’s easy to forget how insignificant each of us is, size-wise, until you venture into country much bigger than that which exists in our towns and valleys. Here, Genswein feels out the snowpack at 13,000 feet in search of cold, dry powder to ski. Much of this zone had either been cooked by the sun or blasted by the wind, but there remained just enough sheltered snow to send us home sated.

Photo by Devon O’Neil