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The Philadelphia Eagles' Lincoln Financial Field obtains all of its energy from wind power, pours fans’ beverages in biodegradable, corn-based plastic cups, powers its scoreboard with solar panels, and has reduced electricity use overall by a third since embarking on a program with the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council to save energy and reduce waste.

EarthTalk®

—The Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s being done to “green up” professional sports? I know that the last two Olympic Games both made some effort, but are there others? —Rob Avandic, Chicago, IL

The last two Olympics were indeed greener than any before, but environmental awareness isn’t limited to the realm of international amateur competition. In fact, in just the last few years, all of the major professional North American sports leagues have made strides in greening their operations.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has helped blaze the trail through its “Greening the Games” initiative. Since 2003, when the National Football League’s (NFL) Philadelphia Eagles turned to NRDC for help saving energy and reducing waste, NRDC has helped dozens of pro teams evaluate their environmental impacts and make changes. Today, the Eagles obtain all of their energy at Lincoln Field from wind power, pour fans’ beverages in biodegradable corn-based plastic cups, power their scoreboard with solar panels, and have reduced electricity use overall by a third. The NFL itself has also jumped on the bandwagon, implementing various green initiatives at the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl, and other big events.

In 2008, NRDC teamed up with Major League Baseball (MLB) to first green the All Star Game, and the following year, the World Series. Subsequently, NRDC assessed each team’s environmental footprint and made recommendations for improving it. Several teams have gone on to build or refurbish their stadiums with sustainability in mind. Boston’s Fenway Park, Atlanta’s Turner Field, Washington, DC’s Nationals Park, and San Francisco’s AT&T Park all get high marks for pro-environment features and operations.

In 2008, NRDC began working with the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) to green its signature event, the U.S. Open. For one, this led to a move to 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper for tournament programs. And an environmental review of all operations at the National Tennis Center in Queens, New York led to a number of green improvements, including the switch to 90 percent post-consumer recycled paper for some 2.4 million napkins and a move to wind turbines for the tournament’s electricity.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) jumped on the NRDC sports bandwagon in 2009, working with the group to organize its first annual Green Week in early April, whereby the entire league works in concert to generate environmental awareness and funding for related causes. As part of the festivities, which took place in 2010 as well and will happen again in April 2011, each NBA team hosted community service events, including tree plantings, recycling drives, and park cleanup days.

NRDC got the National Hockey League (NHL) in on the act as well, helping to green the Stanley Cup Finals and working with individual teams as it did with baseball and football. In announcing the launch of the NHL Green program, league commissioner Gary Bettman commented that it’s only fitting for professional ice hockey to care about staving off global warming: “Most of our players learned to skate on outdoor rinks. For that magnificent tradition to continue through future generations, we need winter weather, and as a league, we are uniquely positioned to promote that message.”


Sportsmen protest New Mexico antelope hunting system

—Laura Paskus/High Country News

A lifelong resident of the southern New Mexico town of Deming, Ray Trejo has hunted ever since he could walk. It's a family tradition he shares with his wife and both their sons, who are now in their 20s.

But about 15 years ago, Trejo's luck started running out in the pronghorn hunting-license lottery. "I was always led to believe — from (the New Mexico Department of) Game and Fish — that that was because of the drought we were under, and that there was less antelope tags being given," says the bowhunter. Then, a few years ago, Trejo learned that private landowners control most opportunities to hunt pronghorn  (commonly called antelope) — even on public lands where they hold grazing allotments. New Mexico's Antelope Private Lands Use System (A-PLUS) gives participating landowners "authorization certificates" that they can then auction, trade or sell to hunters and outfitters, often for thousands of dollars. The buyer can then use the certificate to purchase an actual hunting license for the land from the Department of Game and Fish.

New Mexico landowners received 4,004 antelope certificates in 2009, according to records obtained by the nonprofit New Mexico Wildlife Federation. In contrast, just 1,785 licenses went into the lottery system. Because state law mandates that a certain percentage of those go to out-of-state applicants, some 12,711 New Mexico hunters competed for just 1,432 licenses. "No one here had any idea the degree to which our licenses had really been privatized," says Jeremy Vesbach, the group's executive director. "It has turned into a system where 70 percent are being resold rather than everybody getting an equal chance with the draw." States are supposed to manage wildlife in trust for the public, he adds, with hunters funding it through taxes and fees.

Many New Mexico hunters say the system is unfair. In 2005, sportsmen tried to reform similar rules for elk, but failed when both landowners and the Department of Game and Fish resisted. This fall, they've been asking the agency's seven-member commission to reform the antelope program. Vesbach wants New Mexico to adopt the system other Western states use: distributing tags through a lottery and having hunters pay trespass fees to willing landowners. That method encourages  landowners to improve habitat — those with trophy bucks can charge higher fees — but they don't  profit directly from the public's wildlife. Montana reformers achieved a similar goal in the recent election, passing an initiative that increased big game license fees for out-of-state hunters by about $200. It also abolished outfitter-sponsored licenses, thereby increasing the number of big-game tags available to locals.

At least a few of New Mexico's Game Commission members are in favor of reforming A-PLUS, which has been in place, though not codified, for decades. Commissioner Kent Salazar believes tags should be the property of the state, not something that private citizens can distribute.

At the commission's October meeting, he also proposed amending the system so certificates can only be used on a rancher's private land, and not on adjacent public-lands grazing leases. "That passed," he says, "but there was such an uproar at the meeting that we decided to revisit it." Then, at a Dec. 9 meeting in Clovis, N.M., the commission voted 4-3 to codify A-PLUS essentially as is, without amendments.

The existing program works well for landowners, argues Darrel Weybright, New Mexico's big game program supervisor. Ranchers, who own most of the state's antelope habitat, are "happy to participate because meat prices are down, and it's hard to make a living in a semi-arid landscape," he explains. The extra money they earn is a hedge against selling out, subdivision and habitat fragmentation.

"Based on the free market, they can sell to who they want," says Weybright. And New Mexican hunters could also buy the authorization certificates, he adds, although not many do. That may be because most are what Vesbach calls "blue jeans" hunters, who can't afford premium prices.

Weybright admits the situation is difficult, but calls it a "wonderful study of social issues meeting wildlife management." Despite the commission's decision, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation plans to continue trying to reform the system. Any commissioner can request that a rule be reconsidered, says the group's spokesman, Joel Gay, and new commissioners selected by the incoming governor might think less favorably of the program.

Ray Trejo isn't optimistic.

Hunting families are losing their enthusiasm for big game draws, he says, because they don't ever win. "If we're not careful, we'll be extinct, and it'll be a rich man's game."


Ronald Reagan, the surprise environmentalist

—Ed Quillen, Writers on the Range
Expect to be hearing plenty about Ronald Reagan as the centennial of his birth is coming up soon. Our 40th president was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill. A commemorative postage stamp is in the works, along with traveling exhibits, academic meetings and sculpture unveilings. Few Western environmentalists will be celebrating, though maybe they should.

Reagan, who held office from 1981 to 1989, once famously claimed that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” He appointed James G. Watt, an advocate of commercializing much of our public lands, as Interior secretary. Campaigning in 1980, he told a Salt Lake City audience to “Count me in as a (Sagebrush) rebel.”

The “Sagebrush Rebellion” had started in Nevada the previous year, with the goal of helping Western states take control over their federal land. But it lost momentum after Watt announced a “Good Neighbor Policy” to give locals more input on federal land management. Little really changed on that front. The big change in the West — the move away from a commodity-extraction economy — was a byproduct of Reagan’s economic policies. It was unintentional, but enduring.

In 1980, the West was booming on account of high commodity prices, especially minerals. Gold was pushing $800 an ounce with silver approaching $30. Like many other mountain settlements, my town of Salida, Colo., was prospering. Many residents commuted 75 miles to work at the gigantic Climax molybdenum mine near Leadville, which employed 3,000 people at good union wages with excellent benefits. Closer to town was another union shop, the Monarch quarry, which supplied limestone to the immense CF&I steel mill in Pueblo, Colo. CF&I also had coal mines near Trinidad and an iron-ore quarry in Wyoming.

But then high interest rates and high unemployment at the start of Reagan’s first term discouraged demand for automobiles, so the U.S. auto industry hit the skids. Demand for steel and copper plunged, along with demand for molybdenum, used to harden steel. The Reagan administration also fought successfully against inflation. People buy gold and silver during inflationary times, and when the inflation rate drops, so does demand and thus the price. Gold fell to about $300 an ounce, and silver to $5. Mines, mills and smelters throughout the West shut down. Climax scaled back in 1981, and then halted entirely. CF&I stopped primary steel production in 1982, and closed its mines and quarries. Elsewhere in Colorado, Creede’s Homestake silver mine shut down in 1985.

In Butte, Mont., copper production halted at the Berkeley Pit in 1982. U.S. Steel closed its Atlantic City, Wyo., iron mine in 1983. The copper smelter in Douglas, Ariz., closed in 1987. In Idaho’s Silver Valley, thousands of miners lost their jobs during the Reagan years.

In some parts of America, the 1980s may have reflected Reagan’s campaign theme of “Morning in America.” But in the West, it was more like “Mourning in America.” Overall, the nation’s gross domestic product grew. It doubled and then some, 108.2 percent, from 1980 to 1990, from $2.7 trillion to $5.6 trillion in 2005 dollars, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

But little of that growth happened in the West. During the early ‘80s, Wyoming’s economy, as reflected in its gross domestic product, grew only 21.8 percent, less than a fifth of the national rate. That was the nation’s worst economic performance, and Montana was the next-worst at just 48.4 percent. New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado and Utah all trailed the national GDP growth rate. Perversely, the West responded by giving Reagan even bigger margins when he was re-elected in 1984.

And yet, ironically, Reagan was a boon to our environment, simply because when mines, mills and smelters shut down, they don’t pollute nearly as much. Further, Reagan canceled Jimmy Carter’s synfuels program, which would have turned much of the West into an industrial sacrifice zone. He also put a stop to the MX missile system, which would have torn up a fair chunk of Utah.

Beyond that, those who stayed in the West had to find new ways of gaining a livelihood. The switch was wrenching as much of the rural West moved from extractive industries to amenity tourism — which has its own problems but does value clear air, clean water, flourishing wildlife and scenic vistas as assets worth protecting.

Even though there was a lot of pain out here during the 1980s, we’ve ended up in a cleaner place. So Western environmentalists ought to join in celebrating the centennial of Reagan’s birth — even if our reasons might be different from most people’s.


Heard Around the West

—Betsy Marston, High Country News

THE WEST
We’ve always relished the anecdote about the brand-new Wyoming congressman who made the mistake of bringing his border collie to Washington, D.C. Border collies hail originally from the English-Scottish borderlands, and they are super-smart and quintessentially alert: They live to round up animals, including ducks and people – virtually anything that moves if sheep are unavailable. Confined mostly to an apartment, the congressman’s dog nearly perished of boredom; its only relief came on weekends, when it would herd visiting beer drinkers into a clutch after crouching down and staring at them balefully. In Battle Ground, Wash., Sue Foster faced much the same problem after her border collie, Taff, was kicked out of obedience school for herding all of the black labs into a corner. To give her dog a purpose in life, Foster rented some sheep, reports the Wall Street Journal, an act that was merely the first step down a steep and slippery slope. For after Foster acquired another couple of border collies, she rented some grazing land and then finally bought some sheep of her own. But even this was not the end: Foster also found herself purchasing a “llama to chase off the coyotes that threaten the lambs that go to market to finance the sheep that entertain her dogs.” Dogs, of course, used to be bought to herd sheep; now, owners “get sheep for their dogs.”

COLORADO
Richard Kendall of Craig, a ranching town in western Colorado, was pretty proud of himself after he shot a 703-pound black bear this November, reports the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. After noticing gigantic tracks just before the end of bear season, he got a license, and the next day followed the footprints to the bear’s den. Kendall crawled into the lair, and after hearing the bear’s teeth chatter, shot him dead. His local paper, the Craig Daily Press, wrote a big feature about it, and afterward, Kendall told the Sentinel, strangers on the street stopped to congratulate him for bagging the animal, which stretched 9 feet 6 inches from nose to toes — a possible state record. But as the weeks passed, public reaction changed, increasingly reflecting dismay if not downright repugnance. One critic told the Craig paper, “The killing may be legal, but it is definitely not ethical.” A letter-writer to the Sentinel asked, “What sport is there to track a bear to his den and shoot him at point-blank range while he is in a stupor? When an intruder breaks into our homes … it is called murder.” Kendall says he’s now sick of the whole thing. But it’s not over: In early January, the state’s Wildlife Commission asked its Division of Wildlife to draft a regulation prohibiting the hunting of bears in their dens.

WYOMING
When the city council of Cody, Wyo., met recently to update policies for the town’s recreation center, it did more than overhaul some rules for playing games. In response to a gun owner’s complaint, the council also voted unanimously to permit all firearms carried legally — whether they’re concealed or carried openly on someone’s person. Before, only concealed weapons were allowed in gym rooms or around the swimming pool. Perhaps now there was an interesting answer to the query: “Is that a gun in your Speedo?”

UTAH
State legislatures designate official flowers and even official rocks, so why not an “official state handgun?” Utah might be the first to declare one if Carl Wimmer, a Republican state representative, has his way. Wimmer, who is a fan of the Browning M-1911, a .45-caliber handgun designed 100 years ago by Utah-born John Moses Browning, says he’ll introduce a bill soon, reports talkingpointsmemo.com. The former policeman is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association.

MONTANA
It’s not a big hop from Helena, Mont., to Salt Lake City, but an ornery passenger turned the flight into the trip from hell, pounding on the door to the cockpit and “saying he was a space alien” who wanted to fly the plane, reports the Helena Independent Record. Fortunately, a “big cowboy” stepped in, according to a passenger who watched it all. Clay Cooper, “came up and grabbed” the out-of-control Matthew Kleindorfer, 32, of Las Vegas, thrust him into a seat, fastened his seatbelt and ordered him to stay put. “That cowboy saved the day for sure,” the passenger said. The wannabe alien remained quiet as the plane was diverted to Idaho Falls, though when police took over after the plane landed, Kleindorfer twice kicked one of the officers. Not only strong but silent, Cooper had no comment afterwards.

COLORADO
Thanks to the economic downturn, you can now buy a so-called “eco-friendly” mega-mansion in Aspen for what might turn out to be a bargain price. The town’s first Gold LEED-certified house was initially on the market for $13.9 million, reports PR Newswire; on Jan. 28, however, the 6,750-square-foot home with six bathrooms will be auctioned off, and “there is no minimum bid required to participate.” Visit ConciergeAuctions.com for details about “Vision House Aspen.”


Master Gardeners: Landscape challenges solved

HOMEscape Solutions, a five-week class, will be presented in Sandoval County this March and April by Master Gardeners Darlene Bassett, Denise Davis, and Cathryne Richards. This class is designed for both new master gardeners and homeowners who want more information about solving landscaping challenges. We want to provide the tools to make your HOMEscape possible.

The concept for the class was first discussed by these three master gardeners who wanted to provide more “nuts ‘n bolts” on how to develop properties here in Sandoval County.

Darlene has taught the landscaping class for Southwest Homeowners Gardening Classes, Gardening with the Masters, and past training classes for over the last 10 years.

Denise has had various experiences in developing “open spaces” and public landscaping projects in Utah, where she lived for 12 years. Her last project was the Ogden River Parkway. She is responsible for coordination of the Southwest homeowners programs again this year.

Cathryne said she personally took the Master Gardener Training to learn how to deal with the Placitas soil, water, and plants. She also has attended the Xeriscape Conference for the last five years, in addition to other continuing education courses in order to find out what to do with her sloped, rocky, wind-swept lot!

Together, they have come up with a curriculum that will create a forum and support group for master gardeners and homeowners to work together in teams to produce their dream landscapes and turn ideas into reality in their own outdoor rooms. The idea is to provide ongoing support groups, feedback, and assistance in developing the HOMEscape of your dreams.

The class will be held on Thursdays, starting March 17 and is a five-week commitment. It will be held at the Placitas Community Library on Hwy. 165 from 7–9 p.m. The course fee is $60, which includes a complete materials kit. Sign up now for your spot at the Sandoval Extension Office. Since attendance is limited to the first 20 people, call (505) 867-2582.


Planning starts now

—Mike Dooley, High Desert Gardens

Why is the planning so important? Many of my clients want to start and finish a project in one phase, but others are interested in doing their landscape project a little at a time. The reasons for doing your landscape in phases range from financial needs to the clients that just want time to digest each phase before proceeding with the project. Both of these approaches can make sense, but it is still very important to have a plan finalized at least as far as the basic layout. It is not necessary to know the location and species for every plant, but the basic layout can make the planting phase much easier.

COST CONTAINMENT

From a practical standpoint, I often see homeowners launch into a “plan it yourself” hardscape project not knowing the total cost. It is very easy to spend all your allotted funds on the concrete and masonry and have no money left for planting, gravel, grass, and irrigation. A good designer will realize that budget drives everything, and there is no point in designing a plan that you can’t afford. Good designers should always discuss budget.

AVOID COSTLY MISTAKES

Another reason for planning first is that bed size and shape, as defined by the walls, patios, and sidewalks, can make the planting phase easy or difficult. Let’s say you install a sidewalk 18 inches from a wall the goes to the front door. I see builders do this all the time, and it creates a needless problem. The bed is too small for most plants, and you wind up with a ground cover where it would be nice to have a little height to cover that wall. The other common situation is that you build a garden wall that encloses an area that is larger than you can afford to landscape. The beauty of the garden wall is partially in the fact that it can create an area a size that you can afford to landscape.

Another common mistake is that since you have “all this property,” you want to use it, so you build a pergola 50 feet from the house. After you spend the money to build it, you don’t use it because you realize that it’s not fun to carry food and drinks out to the south forty. Connect it to the house.

Let’s face it—if you get a professional to do a design, you can save a lot of unnecessary and expensive mistakes. You can usually get a plan done for $300 or less! Many contractors, myself included, will do a plan for free if you have them do the work. Please be sure to look at the designer’s work before you have the plan done. All designers are NOT created equal; some are good at hardscape, and a few are good at the planting portion—you need a designer that can do both. Check out their Web site, and you’ll see what they are good at without having to ask.

WHY START NOW?

Landscaping season starts now because the whole planning process and the installation of the concrete can take a while. Concrete can easily be done this time of year using air-entrained concrete designed for this purpose. According to Design and Control of Concrete Mixtures, “specially designed, accelerating admixtures allow concrete to be placed at temperatures down to 20 degrees. “ With a little timing, temps below that can be avoided, and you can get the benefit of discounted winter pricing from most contractors. So find a designer and “get ‘er done.”

Happy Gardening.

www.highdesertgardensinc.com


Flash in the Pan: Processed with neurotoxins, naturally

—Ari LeVaux
Food purists often fuss about the inadequacies of USDA's organic food standards, how pitifully watered down they are from the lofty principles that built the organic movement. They have a point. After all, the USDA's National Organic Program was created to deal with the big agribusinesses determined to exploit the lucrative organic market. But for all the complaints about federal organic standards, the non-certified alternatives — with some foods especially — can be downright scary.

It's ironic that many of the scariest, non-certified organic foods are labeled "natural" — a term that could not mean less, or mislead more. Like "home-style" or "old-fashioned," the label "natural" can mean whatever the labeler wants it to mean. You could put "natural" on a lab-grade jar of MSG crystals, or on a packet of 10-year-old Twinkies, without violating any law. And all too often it's the companies playing the "natural" card that are doing the most unnatural things to your food.

Consider the widespread use of hexane, a neurotoxin, in processed foods that aren't certified organic (those lame organic standards do at least prohibit hexane use). Hexane is a highly flammable EPA-listed air pollutant that is used in the manufacture of cleaning agents, glues, roof sealer, automobile tires, energy bars, veggie burgers, and soy, corn, and canola oils. If these food products are not certified organic, some of the ingredients have probably been processed with hexane, no matter how many times the word "natural" is stamped on the package. Since hexane is used in the manufacturing process, it's not listed as an ingredient in the foods it helps produce, though residues find their way into the finished product. The European Union has strict standards for acceptable hexane residue levels in soy and oilseed products, but in the U.S., there are no such limits.

The organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute arranged for a lab to test samples of U.S. soy products for hexane content. Hexane was found, in levels as high as 21 parts per million — more than twice the 10 ppm allowed by the EU in comparable products.

Technology and Solvents for Extracting Oilseeds and Nonpetroleum Oils is a manual for managers and engineers.  According to this book, published in 1997, the principle reason that hexane has been the solvent of choice for oilseed extraction since the 1930s is "its availability at a reasonable cost."

The reason hexane is so reasonably priced is that it's a byproduct of gasoline production that would otherwise be expensive to dispose of properly. Petroleum companies gain handsomely from the fact that industrial oilseed extraction — under status quo production methods since the 1930s — provides a profitable market for its toxic waste. Oilseed extraction is currently responsible for more than two thirds of hexane use nationwide. Not surprisingly, much of the research cited in the book is funded by the likes of Exxon and Phillips Petroleum.

A chapter devoted to "Toxicity Data for Commercial Hexane" appears to give serious consideration to concerns about hexane's impact on human health, while presenting no evidence that such concerns have been seriously investigated. The chapter explains that "commercial hexane," the type used to extract oilseeds, is a mix of petrochemicals. One of these, n-hexane, which composes more than 50 percent of commercial hexane, has been shown to be a neurotoxin.

The chapter acknowledges that humans are about four times as sensitive as rats to n-hexane, especially over prolonged exposures. Nonetheless, in the very next paragraph it's revealed that only one acute neurotoxicity study was considered. The study evaluated the ability of rats to retain a learned behavior immediately following inhalation of commercial hexane, and 1 and 2 days later.

That's like conducting a carcinogen trial that only monitors the subjects for signs of cancer in the two days following exposure.

The chapter concludes that "commercial hexane is a relatively safe chemical," despite the fact that it consists mostly of a known neurotoxin.

Hexane-extracted soy protein, a favorite of vegetarians and body builders, turns up in some unexpected places, according to the November Cornucopia Institute report on ways that soy proteins and chemical solvents intermingle in nutrition bars and meat alternatives.

Popular protein bars like Clif, Mojo, Balance, and Luna all contain hexane-processed soy, according to the report, as do Boca veggie burgers, Gardenburger products, Trader Joe's veggie burgers, and many more.

Because the supply chain of many soy-containing products is long and complex, companies have some wiggle room in how they respond to inquiries from concerned consumers. According to Cornucopia, companies that make soy-based food products have responded to inquiries about hexane with answers like "Our soy ingredients are not hexane-derived" and "[Our company] does not use hexane to process soybeans." Both answers are worded to give the impression that the product did not come into contact with hexane. But in the first sentence, "hexane-derived" actually means "created from" hexane, rather than "treated with." And the latter claim leaves open the possibility that the company's supplier did the hexane-laced dirty work. I got a similar answer when I contacted Dean Foods, which owns White Wave, the company that makes Silk Soymilk: "Silk does not use hexane in the manufacturing of any of our products."

According to the Cornucopia Institute, Silk's non-organic "Light" and "Heart Health" soymilk products are made with soy flour instead of whole soybeans, and the "only known" sources for non-organic soy flour involve hexane. Of course, it's possible that White Wave has found a way to source its soy flour from hexane-free sources, which buys a measure of hope for Silk lovers who are concerned about hexane.

Soy products have been under fire from many directions for more than just the hexane issue. The heavily subsidized crop isn't easily digested without some form of processing, and there are concerns that estrogen-like molecules in soy can mess with the human hormonal system. That's why many consumers have switched from soy milk to other non-dairy milk substitutes, like almond milk. Nonetheless, another soy product, soy lecithin, manages to make its way into most of these alternatives.

And guess what? Unless the product is organic, that soy lecithin was probably processed with hexane.


It was written on the wind

—Ernie Atencio, Writers on the Range
My brother took his own life a year ago this August. He was not wrestling with depression or drug abuse, and he was not recently divorced or fired or bankrupt. David lived a life of uncommon talent and accomplishment and hope, right up to the end. He killed himself only because he could no longer bear the pain caused by thyroid cancer.

We spent our first years in Dixon, N.M., where many generations of family before us had lived. It was also downwind from Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic bomb that was exploded at the Trinity site in northern New Mexico in 1945.

The thyroid cancer my brother had is strongly associated with radiation exposure. A year younger than me but always the grubbier and more adventurous one, David as a kid liked to eat the Dixon dirt — “nuclear mud pies” — he called them later. Maybe two and two go together.

In those days the poor Indo-Hispano villagers of northern New Mexico didn’t know much about the dangers of radiation. I've heard stories from the years before safety regulations of laborers dumping contaminated materials into local arroyos. Some would bring home hammers and shovels and other apparently perfectly good tools, unaware of the half-lives radiating into their families and futures.

I didn’t think much about Los Alamos and my brother’s thyroid cancer until the forest fires that scorched Los Alamos in 2000 unleashed a towering plume of smoke that I watched veer over Dixon, I began asking around and found that by then, others had put two and two together and the fact that we were “downwinders” was common knowledge. Everyone in Dixon knew someone with an unusual type of cancer or tumor. Recent studies have confirmed high levels of radionuclides in soil and plant tissues along a swath of land north and east from Los Alamos.

Doctors discovered the cancer in David when he was 19, and performed a radical thyroidectomy that included removing half his neck muscles. From then on his spinal column was a wreck that led to years of severe chronic pain and disability. At the time, the surgeons didn’t expect him to live more than another five years. Thirty-three years later he was still slugging it out.

Despite pain that he never showed, my brother never gave up. In his early 20s, he was an enormously successful community organizer in Denver, fighting for consumer protection and environmental cleanup and other social justice issues. We have a tradition of activism in our family, but David’s brief career was meteoric — working hand in hand with Gov. Dick Lamm on state legislation, testifying before Congress, getting to know Tip O’Neill, marching on Wall Street.

But meteors burn out. His illness and pain overcame him, and he couldn’t keep up the grueling pace. David’s suicide was not a complete surprise. He had mentioned the idea to me in recent years, as he struggled more with the pain. A couple of weeks after his death, his wife discovered a 33-page farewell letter, which he had poignantly titled “Life Story of a Nobody.” It had been written a year earlier, during the last 10 days of a 40-day fast.

By the end of August he seemed ready to go, but his exit was heart-wrenching and dramatic. Unable to work because of his condition, abandoned by the government whose experiments had maimed him, and unable to qualify for disability assistance, my brother spent his last few years selling drugs for a living. No wealthy drug lord, he lived a modest life, just paying the rent and medical bills.

I’d talked to him that day, because our mother was in the hospital facing possible heart surgery. He sounded good, I thought, when he said, “Nice to talk to you, brother.” Late that night, after a flurry of panicked phone calls, I learned that he was dead. During a drug bust at his house in Denver, handcuffed and sitting on his front porch, with his wife watching helplessly from the car, he found a sharp object and severed his carotid artery. I think he knew he would never survive in jail and he took what seemed to him a less painful way out.

This was the ignoble end to a noble life. It came to this in part because we didn’t know the dangers that floated on the wind from the nuclear weapons facility up the road, and because the government never acknowledged any connection between Los Alamos and our lives downwind. It’s late, but we know now.

Ernest Atencio is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Taos and works on land and conservation issues throughout northern New Mexico.

     

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