Mountain Passages: Insider Info on Travel to Cuba

Thinking of traveling to Cuba anytime soon? Here are some thoughts, possibly useful, that will help. By Alan Stark

When you arrive at the Havana airport there are no jetways, only mobile ramps the ground crews roll up to airplane doors. These ramps look like they were made on a bad day in Romania. The plastic canopy around them has nearly gone opaque with sun damage and age. But here is a warning: It’s always warm in Cuba and mostly downright hot and humid. Don’t get caught behind a slowpoke going through one of these things unless, of course, being slow-cooked is of interest.

Once you are inside the airport, you will encounter immigration positions with a door at the far end. The sense is odd, like walking into a closet with an unfriendly young adult to one side who will decide whether you get the lady (or man), or the tiger. The security door buzzes open to a hanger-like hall with metal detectors and security people wearing starched light-brown uniforms. They are mostly handsome twenty-somethings, and the women have added a twist to their normal uniform—black lace stockings. The incongruity is starting, like encountering one of our bloused-booted, Glock-toting, immigration officers with a three-inch smiley-face pin on his chest.

Cuban WomanThe black lace stockings are a tip-off about what is to happen in Cuba—no, not everyone is going to be wearing black lace stockings. But Cuba is rapidly changing from a drab communist state clone to a multifaceted socialist state. The change appears to be irreversible, if they do it right, and make carefully thought-out changes to avoid huge dislocations. This could be another Velvet Revolution that created the Czech Republic. But, if the party holds onto power and there is no revolution, Cuba will be like Viet Nam, a Socialist government and a highly entrepreneurial population. Call it a the Salsa Revolution—for the Cubans are about to dance their way into the 21st century.

There are hundreds of curiosities within the Cuban government, and many of these curiosities seem to have an antecedent of, “Lets throw this sugar cane at the wall and see if sticks.”

For example, there are two currencies in Cuba one is Cucs (kooks) that the government has set an exchange rate at 87 to US$100. Yup, there is a 13% commission charged by the government to trade dollars for Cucs. This is the currency used by tourists and should be acquired at the hotel on arrival. The second is the Peso that is used by the Cubans as well as Cucs. At this writing, there are no ATMs in Cuba, and credit cards are useless, everything a tourist buys in Cuba is with Cucs. The government doesn’t stop getting into your wallet on the way out of Cuba. When leaving, Cucs are exchanged for dollars at the airport again with a 13% charge. Give them 100 Cucs and they give you back US$87. However, there is a better deal to be had in the hotel lobby or on the street just before you leave. Cubans will pay $100 for 100 Cucs. Dollars come into Cuba as remittances that the Cubans need changed to Cucs and the only way they can do that is through money changers working free lance at and around the hotels.

Cigar aficionados be warned, Cuban cigars are as advertised, they are wonderfully fragrant, mild, and smooth smoking. A trip to tobacco growing region Valle de Vinales and a tobacco farm is a couple hours of pure addiction gratification.

The farmer greets you in a curing barn hung with rack of sweet-smelling tobacco.

cigar seller “How many of you smoke?” the farmer will ask sarcastically, knowing that most Americans, wishing to live forever, have given up smoking but relish a puff or two on a Cuban cigar.  He then talks about how the tobacco is grown and cured, and then he goes to work to skillfully make a cigar, holding some leaves in one hand, cleaning and smoothing the leaves into a tent-like form that he then rolls on a smooth surface. Next, he carefully selects fine wrapper leaves and rolls a perfect cigar. Then he cuts both ends and light up for a couple puffs, and then carefully puts the hot end of the cigar in his mouth and blows smoke out of the cigar. Taking the cigar out of his mouth, he passes it to the nearest now-slavering non-smoker and says, “A good cigar, it draws well.”

After the demonstration he invites you to his house for coffee and/or rum or both while a family member sells cigars at one Cuc each from a cardboard box. In a matter of an hour or so, you can indulge in nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, a socially acceptable addicts paradise, not to be missed on a visit to Cuba.

Something that also can’t be missed in Cuba are all the antique cars and trucks smoking along the streets interspersed with Eastern Block POS, (remember the Yugo?), a few Japanese and Korean sedans, and the occasional, out of place, fat-cat, thuggish BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. These antiques are the cars from before the 1959 revolution that have been rebuilt many times over, usually retrofitted with diesel engines, and appear to be held together by superb jury-rigging mechanics, imagination, wishful thinking, and wire.

They are a metaphor for how Cubans deal with their situation; don’t go without— make it work—keep it going. Throughout the day and most of the night in Havana, these cars, many of which are for hire (agree on a price with the driver before you get in), smoke and honk their way through the pot-holed streets. They provide a colorful on-going parade of mid-century American engineering, Cuban ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit. One note of caution, pedestrians in Cuba are pretty much ignored by drivers. It’s not that Cuban drivers are murderous, but they are a little crazy and crossing a street is an adventure.

Los Cubanos
But the best adventure to be found in Cuba is with the people: Their great love of family and friends, the warmth with which they greet and engage with strangers, and their love of life under a repressive government and a ridiculous embargo perpetrated by morons in our government.

When talking about the future, Cubans recognize that change is coming but say, “it’s complicated, we need to be careful. We need to go slowly.” In the past two hundred years, there have been a number of revolutions in Cuban, some fairly violent.

Cuban WorkerIn spite of Cuban circumspection, change is going to come quickly in Cuba. In the last month, Raul Castro and President Obama met and held a joint press conference. The Cubans are thrilled with the thaw in Cuban American relations, as are American corporations thinking about how they are going to exploit a new opportunity in Cuba. But in past revolutions, American corporations, one of them being the mafia, have taken a good deal more out of Cuba than they have put in. The Cubans are right, they need to be careful. On the business side, they should form their own national corporations that are production and profit oriented on the Chinese model. Or if outright freedom comes, they should limit international corporations to 49% ownership in Cuban corporations along the lines of the Canadian model.

The worst that can happen here is another blood-bath of a revolution. But Raul Cuban turkeyCastro appears to be a smart guy who is probably not going to give up power, and will eventually groom another fat cat to take his place. Cubans now get to vote in municipal elections. The hope is that this vote will eventually carry over to provincial elections, and then national elections and perhaps a formation of a congress or parliament that truly represents the Cuban people. We will all see.

There is much that is in flux in Cuba. In spite of this, still thinking about going to Cuba? Do it for two reasons: (1) Cuban tourism is the financial starting point for a much more entrepreneurial and free Cuba. (2) The Cubans have built a society and culture under difficult circumstance. They are happy and wonderful neighbors who deserve our support.

The fourth of a three-part series on Cuba. Alan Stark is a free-lance based in Boulder who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog. He can be reached at


Postcard: Black Sheep in Stagecoach, Colorado

We’ve all felt like this guy at some point — like we simply didn’t fit in. But as he and his flock showed during our brief encounter last week in Stagecoach, Colorado, the color of your wool matters less than your attitude and ability to be productive in society. Stark as his appearance may have been, he was filling a vital role here, herding the young ‘uns across the road to the next patch of vegetation. Baaaah’aaaah!

Photo by Devon O’Neil

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

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