Friday, August 31, 2007

A Ranch Worth Checking Out

A friend of mine directed me to the Alderspring Ranch web site: the proprietors are friends of hers, and she wanted to share their philosophy (and maybe some of their products) with me. Don't let the somewhat primitive-looking layout fool you; this is a wonderfully-informative site with many original pages as well as links to outside resources. I liked, first off the bat, the ranchers' focus on the centrality of grass to their beef production.
"We believe we live in the best grass-fed beef producing area in the country. The cold summer nights and high soil mineral levels of our mountain pastures grows grass like nowhere else, and results in a uniquely flavorful beef."
I'd thought, of course, about the effects of different feed inputs on the taste of beef, but I hadn't quite thought before about the effects of different soil and weather inputs on the flavor of grass, and how those in turn might subtly influence the meat's ultimate flavor.

Not only that, says rancher Glenn Elzinga, but "there are slight seasonal variations in the flavor balance due to a dynamic sward of grass and the various plant stages that define it at a particular point in the growing season."

The site has particularly good discussions of routine antibiotic use in the livestock industry, translating labels on meat, and how to cook grass-fed steaks.

From their page on environmental benefits, the Elzingas briefly describe their own efforts to improve the ecological working of their ranch:
"Water pollution from feedlot-raised beef is a growing concern. At Alderspring Ranch, we are careful about keeping the water that flows through our ranch clean. We have fenced cattle away from streams and riparian areas. We do everything we can to keep the valuable nutrients in cattle manure on our pastures rather than allowing it to escape and become water pollutants. We use a permaculture system of pasture maintenance. We do not plow and seed annual forages. We improve pastures through grazing management and hand seeding. This approach eliminates soil erosion, and works to build the organic matter and fertility of soil.

Finally, we avoid monocultures. We rejoice in our brushy fenced breaks that are home to deer, nesting birds and small mammals. We try to encourage the growth of cottonwoods along our ditches to supply shade for our cattle, and habitat for raptors that then reduce our rodent populations. We allow the wetter areas of our ranch to grow native sedge meadows, and graze these carefully to avoid hummocking."
You can read more about their production protocols here.

Er... Hello Again

A funny thing to be the first post in three weeks... but, in acknowledgment of our major regional political news:

From Left in the West (and featured by kos): Montana state senator Dave Lewis (R) of Helena thinks pervs like Idaho Sen. Larry Craig deserve the Islamic fundamentalist treatment.

Make that Idaho ex-Senator Larry Craig.

If only we could throw the crooks out for their actual crookery, and not their sad and sordid personal struggles. Senator Craig, for the record, I don't care what you did in the restroom; I care what you did in the halls of power.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bill Kennedy or at least some Democrat for Congress '08!

Did I mention Montana only has one Republican politician left on the national level?

Bill Kennedy, Yellowstone County commissioner (that's Billings), plans to run against Rehberg in '08. Probably other Democrats will run in the June primary too. Why am I mentioning Kennedy today?

Because the very first issue Kennedy addresses on his "Issues" page is country-of-origin labelling (COOL).
Agriculture: Montana’s Industry
Family ranches and farms are a critical component to our state economy and I will fight for them. I support country-of-origin labeling that gives consumers the opportunity to support Montana-grown products. Spending the past 14 years working with farmers and ranchers, I've listened and understand the critical role that federal farm policy plays in the lives of everyday Montanans. Given a fair chance, Montana's farmers and ranchers can compete with anyone, but we need a level playing field.

I'm liking your priorities, Bill.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

I Never Knew It Could Betta Like This

My kid was begging for a guinea pig. Our apartment building does not allow pets; and I was enjoying our fur-free existence after living seven years with a two cats, a dog, and a husband with selective cat-vomit blindness. When we split up, he kept the pets (they were his to begin with), bodily secretions and all. I try really hard when I go over there not to point out the vomit streaks.

I think a guinea pig is too big, I said.

How about a lizard?, she said. Or a snake?

I like reptiles, but my childhood experience suggests they're difficult to keep healthy. Lizards are hard, I said. Snakes have to eat mice.

I had a feeling things weren't going to end up the way I wanted. I steeled myself to consent to a hamster. Could we have a hamster? The cage might kind of smell bad. I was enjoying my house not smelling bad. For once.

How about a fish?, she said. Really? Was I off the hook? A fish?, I said. Well, maybe. Give me the weekend to think about it.

Come Monday, I thought a fish was a pretty good idea. An easy fish. My daughter had already killed off several bettas at her dad's, though I knew they were supposed to be the hardiest. I suggested a nice goldfish. But she wanted another betta.

Well, I am supposed to be a fish expert of sorts. I've been caring for laboratory fish for the past 7 years, since before my daughter was even conceived. I had hopes that I could be successful where my ex-husband had, inexplicably, failed. We went to PetSmart and picked out a nice female (A. prefers simpatica over showy).

I took care over the set-up: a bigger bowl than strictly necessary, with a wide opening. Not one but two plastic cover plants. A stick-on thermometer, since I suspected the string of previous bettas-- tropical creatures-- had perished of chill in my ex's wintry Montana basement apartment. Some further conferring with the salesgirl over the best way to keep the bowl warm when the seasons change (I'm not keeping my apartment 75 degrees in the winter for a fish). A. picked out the brightest multicolor gravel, and of course we needed food, and water conditioner, and a scrub brush, and a little net. I ended up spending about $30-- twice what I would have for the little pre-fab betta kit.

We took our fish home, carefully prepared her bowl, and waited for the water to come to room temperature to avoid shocking her with cold (had my ex- done this?). While the betta sat patiently in the cup, my daughter named her. She looks like she's smiling, she said. How about "Smiler"? I made a noncommittal grunt. A. took note of my lack of enthusiasm. Or what about "Happy"?, she said. I know!: "Feliz!"

Feliz was a perfect name. She's a pretty little fish, pale in front with a pinky-violet iridescence towards the tail, and plum-colored fins. Delicate-looking. After we put her into her bowl, I was sure we'd find her belly-up any moment.

At first, Feliz was shy. She lingered towards the back of the bowl and declined to feed until we'd moved away and didn't seem to be looking at her. But, within a day or two, she began swimming up towards us when she saw us approach. A fast learner for such a little fish; a lot smarter, frankly, than the trout I work with. It was strangely gratifying to get up in the morning and say, "hello, Feliz!," and have her actually come to me. I'm just like a six-year-old. Do you think she likes me?

Now, less than a week later, Feliz perks up when I come home from work. Her bowl is on my desk; if I stop typing and address myself to her, like now, she swims over and looks me in the eye, no doubt to assess my feeding-related intentions. Sorry, Feliz, only twice a day. I am well and truly hooked.

I want Feliz to be happy, and not only because of her name. Plastic plants and a roomy, warm-enough, clean bowl are good, but could I do better? Do fish play?, asked my daughter. I don't think so. Maybe I'll have to track down some live food, and real plants. I remember my freshman English teacher, a friend to this day, who asked the class after reading Hemingway's"Big Two-Hearted River": Are the fish happy in this story?

I want the fish to be happy in this story.

Foodie Links, 8/11/07

At Daily Kos, Runs With Scissors reads Jacques Pepin in a fever dream.

Sustainable Table has undertaken the Eat Well Guided Tour of America. You can read about their farm and restaurant visits as well as, possibly, join them for an event in your area (schedule here). In particular, their "Pie Across America" project features local pies from all along their route. Many thanks to DKos's CSI Bentonville for sending me the links.

KeysAmy of decides to make entirely local peach pie in North Carolina. Some challenges ensue, but it still looks kind of great.

"Cupcake Porn" from the blog Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. You know you want to look.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Conservation and Environment Links, 8/10/07

I've been quiet this week, but here are a handful of links to chew on in the meantime.

FishOutofWater at Daily Kos writes about a record minimum for Arctic sea ice.

A new study in Science suggests the endangered black-footed ferret population, supported by a captive breeding program, is making progress.

The El Segundo blue butterfly, on the endangered species list since 1976, is making a comeback too.

Biodiversity alert: a 386-square-mile tract of forest in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, long-inaccessible to biologists because of regional violence, is found to contain a number of previously-undescribed species as well as a very high level of animal and plant diversity. "The Wildlife Conservation Society notes that chiefs and elders at local villages are supportive of transforming the region into a protected park."

BP proposes coal-bed methane exploration in the Canadian portion of the Flathead River basin, near Glacier National Park. Montana politicians and scientists are alarmed.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Whither the Farm Bill Now?

I took a farm bill break, and so did most people for a few days after the House passed it on July 27 (its passage is reported here in haiku form). But it's worth taking stock of where we stand, with the Senate due to take up the bill in September, after the recess.

The House put together a bill which was much like the 2002 farm bill in its essentials, particularly in its approach to subsidies, but did manage to include funding for a number of desirable new programs and increase nutrition spending. Both the Environmental Working Group (statement via Mulch) and Pelosi credit the failed Kind/Flake amendment for creating pressure to depart even minimally from the status quo, with EWG suggesting the amendment was "sufficiently threatening to the subsidy lobby to leverage increased funding for conservation, nutrition, organic agriculture, specialty crops, minority farmers and many other priorities.”

There were a couple of positive things about the bill that I haven't yet noted. Dan Morgan, on, says: "
The big losers in closed-door deal making that went on in Pelosi’s office until the wee hours last Thursday morning were the oil and gas industry and the crop insurance industry. Their lobbyists were caught short, but there is plenty of time for them to regroup as the bill goes to the Senate and then to a final House-Senate conference." Why were the lobbyists upset? The federal share of private crop insurance administrative costs was reduced, and new fees were imposed on deepwater oil and gas wells. I can get behind those changes.

organics got some additional funds in the House farm bill, including $50 million over the next five years in assistance payments to farmers in the process of converting to organic. Since conversion is a slow and arduous process, with certification (and premium prices) only coming after several years of increased investment, this is a welcome form of aid, though the amount spent this way would ideally be larger.

So what can we expect from the Senate in September? Despite a slimmer Democratic majority, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, is considered to be more sympathetic to progressive alternatives than House chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN). The San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed him “friendlier to conservation and nutrition programs" and noted his support of "tougher payment limits." In particular, Harkin will be looking to bring back the Conservation Security Program he was instrumental in creating, funding for which was neglected in the House bill. He has indicated
that he supports the tax proposal, closing a loophole for foreign corporations, that created so much furor during the House passage of the bill.

What can we hope for and work for?

The Food Research and Action Center urges us to use the August recess "to educate Senators about the importance of Farm Bill nutrition title investments.” That is, preserve the modest funding increases passed by the House; given their modestness, perhaps even improve upon them (hey, we can dream). If anti-hunger efforts are important to you, this is a good time to craft a letter to your Senator.

Despite the disagreements within the progressive blogosphere over the Kind/Flake amendment and its merits or dangers, one thing everyone (even, somewhat frighteningly, Bush; but with the surprising exception of Barbara Boxer) seems to agree on after passage of the House bill is that payment caps remain too high (currently, $1 million in farm earnings in order to be disqualified for subsidies). This should be a major focus of efforts as the bill goes to the Senate in September, something both liberals and conservatives agree on (for different reasons)-- a no-brainer. Sen. Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dorgan (D-ND) are planning a bipartisan push for lower income caps ($250K instead of $1 million), and we should urge our senators to support this effort. Since Bush wants this too, lower income caps might also reduce the likelihood of the threatened presidential veto.

Another surprising place where one might find oneself agreeing with the Bush administration over the Democratic House’s farm bill: international food aid. Shipping surplus food overseas, with its associated energy costs, waste, and distribution challenges, doesn’t make sense. Helping to shore up local farm economies in developing countries does. I wish they’d stop calling it “Mr. Bush’s idea”; it’s not like he invented it. But why was this dropped from the House bill? Can it be revived in the Senate?

A couple of other legislative matters to follow, and consider whether you'll support:

Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio will be introducing the Farm Safety Net Improvement Act of 2007. Discussed here, the legislation would change the structure of subsidies to be allocated, not purely based on crop prices, but also on yield. Structuring payments in this way would aid farmers who have a bad year despite high prices, and discourage over-production when prices are low. Durbin and Brown also support the $250K income cap. Here’s a bill overview (.pdf) from the American Farmland Trust, who support the measure.

If you were a fan of the Kind/Flake amendment in the House, the whole matter is likely to be revisited. Dick Lugar (R-IN) supports a version of the Kind amendment. Again, the whole farm bill debate is a dance of strange bedfellows, and Farm Bill Girl at Daily Kos has often pointed to Lugar's far-from-progressive, pro-free-trade ideological reasons for supporting the amendment as proof that it's dangerous.

The Senate is also due to take up the Iraq war later in September, which may leave only a short period available for real debate on the farm bill. Harkin is hinting that the current bill may need to be extended for a few months until the new one is finished. However, the House floor debate lasted less than 24 hours, and we should be prepared for the alternative possibility of things getting pushed through quickly. The timing of the August recess gives us the opportunity to gear up for whichever parts of this fight we deem most crucial.

Meanwhile, Tom Philpott over at Grist talks about work-arounds: how to transcend the evils of the inevitably flawed farm bill by forming local production and distribution networks.

Credit to, as usual, for pointing to a bunch of these links. The Ethicurean's round-ups are indispensable too.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Architecture Is Not Justice

Poems from Guantanamo detainees are featured in today's Boston Globe (h/t MissLaura at Daily Kos).

Part of the poem by Sami al Haj:
They have monuments to liberty
And freedom of opinion, which is well and good.
But I explained to them that
Architecture is not justice.
America, you ride on the backs of orphans,
And terrorize them daily.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Giant Water Bug

There's nothing particularly timely about this post... except that it was just yesterday I learned of this creature's existence in the universe. Through being approached by one at the local swimming pond. It was injured and was paddling slowly about, so we had lots of opportunity to examine it. This image seems a pretty good likeness, but doesn't give a sense of scale. The thing was, at a guess, about 3 1/2 inches long, though my insect guide gives 1-2 inches as a more usual size range. Here's a good scale pic of an Ecuadorean one; it wasn't quite that big. Giant water bugs are true bugs, Hemipterans; this resulted in everybody looking at me like I was an idiot for proclaiming repeatedly, "I'm pretty sure it's a bug." They are predatory, and our instinct to stay away from the front pair of legs while handling the bug was apparently correct: another common name for them is "toe-biters." Here are pictures of them eating tadpoles, adult frogs, and a snake.

Apparently, some people not only know they exist, but eat them.

The male giant water bug carries the eggs on his back until they hatch, in order to protect them from predation, a fact that proves that men are badly oppressed and unjustly maligned in our society (.pdf). (I can't link to the specific page-- 151-- of this highly fascinating ebook, "If Men Have All the Power, How Come Women Make the Rules?"... but if you'd like to browse it for yourself, please feel free.) Anyway you can see a picture of the egg thing here. It's pretty neat but I don't think it has much to do with who pays for dates or why women dress so sexy if they're not trying to use their power to subjugate men.

I love discovering that a highly striking, formidable, exotic-seeming creature that I've never seen or even heard of before lives in my local pond, and in fact-- as my insect guide says-- is "relatively common." More things in heaven and earth...

Although I was joking, my daughter takes seriously the possibility that it was a fairy in disguise.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Please Comment on this Post!

Dear handful of regular readers,

I need your input on something simple. I'd like your thoughts on the readability of this blog, from a purely visual standpoint. While I think the design is pretty, over time I've become uncertain whether it's optimal for reading. The concerns I have are:

text size?: Is it too small? Aesthetically, I like the small font, but in the long run aesthetics are less important than comfort.

background?: This green happens to be my favorite color, but if it detracts too much from readability it goes.

column layout?: I would much prefer a wider column for posts and smaller margins, but blogger uses preset templates and I don't think I can adjust this without choosing an entirely new design. I'm open to using a different template, however, if The People think these columns are just too damn narrow.

The pain-in-the-ass variable line spacing is beyond my control, and is apparently a general bug in the editor, common to many blogspot blogs.

Please advise. This means you. What do you think?: is it fine? If not, which elements need changing?

In the Papers, 8/1/07

One proposed settlement in a major water rights negotiation would be the largest grant to irrigators since the creation of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, representing 15% of the federally-controlled water in California. The recipient of these rights would be the Westlands Water District, a group of large agribusiness operations in the San Joaquin Valley. This is a complicated situation; also at issue is an old unsettled lawsuit by the district against the U.S. government for pollution of the cropland, and potential associated cleanup costs. Coming to an agreement may be a win/win for the feds and the agribusiness group, but who's losing?


Fortunately, the ecological effects of the proposed border fence with Mexico are starting to be discussed in the mainstream news media. Such fencing would inhibit the movements of large migratory species, as well as those of smaller, but crucial, dispersers such as insects and pollen. It would also restrict species' access to water in many places. The Sonoran Pronghorn, mentioned in my first post, is of especial concern. Land of Enchantment has been blogging on this subject at Daily Kos for some time: here, and here, for instance. Her diaries are worthwhile reading.


Small-town police reports: feel the love.

A man fishing at Hyalite Reservoir snagged a wallet that had been on the bottom of the water for 30 years. The wallet will be returned to its original owner.

The Bench

When my parents visited this spring, I took them to the Cherry River Fishing Access, because it is near town, pretty, and small. It was important to go someplace small, because neither one was physically able to trek far. My mom has a long-standing disability that makes walking arduous. My stepfather was recovering from pneumonia, and he tired quickly at this high elevation.

My mom mostly sat on a picnic bench near the parking lot, some 50-100 yards away from the ponds frequented by waterbirds. The table is still a pleasant spot, but with tall cattails and grasses in the way, you can't see much of the wildlife from there. Meanwhile, I strolled a little with my stepfather; an urban-souled fellow, he was delighted to see and hear redwinged blackbirds, which he apparently viewed as a novelty.

That's one of many good excuses for keeping these small spots alive: they're physically-accessible to people who can't make it into the backcountry, and perceptually-accessible, too, to enthusiastic beginners with little knowledge or experience of their denizens.

After the visit, however, my mother understandably wished she could have sat closer to the ponds, so she, too, could have had a better view of blackbirds, coots, and ducks. Being of an enterprising character, she wrote a letter to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who administer the site, suggesting that a bench be placed on the path that runs between the two ponds, right alongside the edge of the southernmost. I wrote to them, too, offering to pay for the bench myself, as it was almost her birthday, and I didn't want the idea to be rejected based on cost.

MTFWP was surprisingly helpful and cooperative about the request. I was pleased to discover how responsive they were to communications from random persons-- answering promptly, giving suggestions serious consideration, and not a form letter in sight. Here's what simultaneously disappointed and pleased me most: I had already entered into a conversation about timing and price, when I got a follow-up email. Its key point:
"We have had a discussion about a bench location, and the opinion is that in the spring and summer time any disturbance between the two ponds is distrupting to nesting birds & waterfowl even by those walking thru on the trail let alone, sitting there."

I was disappointed, of course, because I couldn't make the gesture of buying that bench for my mother. It might have given her some pleasure during her occasional fair-weather visits, and provided a resting place for others who would have enjoyed the comfortable spot for watching birds and other animals.

But I was even more pleased that MTFWP so clearly had its priorities in the right place: with the needs of the wildlife. This is not always obviously the case in interactions with state wildlife agencies. But here they had turned down a free "improvement" to their parcel, one that had initially sounded attractive (or at least innocuous), because of thoughtful consideration of its impacts. I appreciated both their initial receptivity and eventual retraction of the offer. So here's a shout-out to Montana FWP, Region 3 Parks Staff.

That all having been said, though, the bench negotiation emblemizes-- in a small way-- a conflict that has arisen repeatedly in the recreational use of conservation lands. Most of the time, the argument is not over the placement of static objects like benches, but over motorized vehicle access. The problem is: do elderly and disabled persons, unable to hike, bike, or ski, have a just claim to access remote or rough areas by other means, even if those means have profound wildlife impacts? Which is more important, my mother's opportunity to watch ducks equally with able-bodied duck-watchers, or the ducks' opportunity to nest in greater peace? The Department of the Interior , for instance, does have certain civil rights obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But, as so often in government bodies, they also have other, sometimes competing, mandates.

It's probably obvious, from the above story, that I have mixed feelings, as would anyone with a concern for both people and wildlands. All else equal, improved amenities for people who might otherwise lack access to wild landscapes are a worthy goal. But often, all else is not equal. Usually, access comes with a cost. These costs and benefits have to be carefully weighed on a case-by-case basis (as they were by MTFWP) if wise decisions are to be made. There's no sense in improving access to an area whose unique features would be gradually destroyed by that access; the long-term health of the place, in my book, outweighs the desires and convenience of any of its witnesses.

I say this not because there was anything wrong with my mother wanting a bench, but because the argument for handicapped access has been used widely and (in my opinion) often disingenuously by certain lobbying groups. Here's a statement from the president of the Property Rights Foundation of America, angry over New York state's decision to return the Hudson River Recreation Area to a more rustic condition-- and she's chosen to title it "Disabled Apartheid." (New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation's plan for the aforementioned area doesn't really sound so sinister to me.) This particular type of hyperbole has been common locally as well. MTFWP has a page summarizing access controversies.

Though a bench is surely not as disturbing to wildlife as a snowmobile trail or paved road, I am very glad to know that even such minor decisions are attended to with care by my local parks maintenance crew. May we enjoy such specificity always in the management of our lands.