Fire, Trees, Rocks, Hot Shots and Spike Camps

IMG_1657Missoula      Relatively speaking, Montana is not on the same fire alert as many western states suffering from extensive drought, but nothing is relative in August once temperature moves towards 100 degrees and rain becomes scarcer. Anything can set off a blaze, especially lightning sparking out from a thunderstorm.

Several days ago, we watched closely as helicopters intermittently flew over with 160 gallon buckets of water, pulled from Rock Creek. Our Airstream is on “in-fill” property with U.S. Forest Service land all around from the rocks to the road. The first day a ranger said it was only three or four acres. The location was along Alders Creek around the ridge that we abut by several miles, and part of the steep, craggy unsettled rock speckled with stands of pine. The beetles have been a scourge in the northern plains, browning and killing many older, weaker trees and becoming one of the devil in the details of climate change in this part of the country.

The following day there were signs posted as we came back from an I-90 supply run, letting us know we were in a fire safety area. Several green trucks were out in a field. More helicopters seemed to be working, though they stopped in the late afternoon. We had been smelling smoke off and on, but it seemed to have abated, so we hoped the job was done.

Driving on Rock Creek road as we puttered along the next day, we pulled over as three, identical white trucks, labeled “Twin Peaks” with windowed rear cabs passed by followed by three white passenger vans, all with Utah plates. That evening while working to unload lumber from a truck with our neighbors, a Forest Service ranger came by to do some “public information.” They had brought the “hot shots” in to fight the fire and set up a “spike” camp at the end of our bridge fording Rock Creek. She gave us maps, common sense instructions (no open fires or catalytic converters), and generally everyone thought the fire would be contained as it backed up a steep ravine and confronted the natural firebreaks that were the results of an earlier fire, and should shut off further fuel for the fire.

When I said that we thought they had gotten it the day before in the mid-afternoon, it turned out everything had stopped when one of their firefighters had been hurt. She wouldn’t give the details other than to say that became their “number one priority,” and that he would be all right. On the topo map she left us, the MedVac location was clearly marked, and piecing together what little she said, we were clear that it was the rocks that got him, not the flames. The green trucks a couple of miles up the road were the result of a quick drilled well that was filling a semi-portable tank, so that rather than the helicopters decreasing the Rock Creek flow, they could refill by dropping their buckets into what was essentially a big makeshift bathtub.

After watching open trucks bring back loads of 4, 6, and 5 men, dirty, and smudged at 8PM at night to the spike camp, the next day we thought we would hike up the ridge on the old fire trail and see if we could measure the progress. A couple of thousand feet up, we stopped where we could see the smoke billowing above some flames. While Chaco looked down the trail, I thought I would go up a little higher and see if I could get an even better view. A long fallen pine ended up blocking my way, and as I came back down the loose rocks, one turned on me. Trying to catch my balance, I tried to run down the rest of the way, but not calculating the steepness, my momentum was propelling me down faster that I figured and instantly I was crossing the 20 feet of trail and not slowing down. I thought I could grab a sapling at the edge and stop myself, but hadn’t counted on the quick drop off over the edge, so ended up tumbling down and trying simultaneously to break my fall in the rocks. I finally stopped another twenty feet down, when I rolled full force into the trunk of a pine, hitting it squarely with my back, and knocking my breath out. Chaco seeing me fall, essentially over the cliff, had immediately jumped down, bracing himself with both feet, worried that I might have broken every bone on my fool self and been seriously hurt.

Everything seemed to be in reasonable working order. I could see where my camera had fallen. My hat was in another direction, and blind luck located my glasses, once I could finally get up and crawl back up. I was lucky. Some scrapes and scratches of course and likely a bruise, larger than any hipster’s tattoo, will still be on my back when I hit home, but, strangely, it was reminiscent of my high school days, catching a pass and then being leveled in exactly the same way by a 230 pound linebacker as I had just been handled by that sturdy pine.

Writing this, the rain has finally come, hard and steady, for the last couple of hours, so we’ll hope that douses the Alders Creek fire, but the main thing we discussed as I creakily go from bunk to couch in the Silver Bullet, is how much we admire and appreciate the rangers and firefighters of the U.S. Forest Service, the job they do, the sacrifices they make, and the fact that no amount of Republicans, Koch Brothers, or Tea People could light a candle to the least of them.


Tea Party, Taken Over and in Trouble at the Base   Usually when you see a headline that says something is “far from dead,” it pretty much always means that it’s on its last legs. That was the headline in the Missoula Independent on a piece written by the co-founder of the Bozeman Tea Party. Now, I was interested!

Then I noticed a piece in Mother Jones by Andy Kroll that featured yet another inside look at the fading, or should I say, aging Tea Party. Jason Cline, an Arkansas political consultant, was the director of Alliance for Progress – Arkansas, described as “one of AFP’s strongest chapters,” wrote an internal memo noting the decline of the Tea people, which had made its way to Mother Jones. Here’s his cut on the matter:Cline writes in response that he was not biased against elderly activists but rather sought out younger activists for AFP-Arkansas due to a dropoff in support among older tea party followers. He explains:

We have a declining tea party engagement and we need to engage new forms of activists. The comment [made by Cline to a fellow activist] was specifically, ‘These old people are not gonna get it done. These kids are workers.’ Not in the sense that they can’t accomplish it, but that there are too few of them.

The problem of declining support from older tea partiers, Cline continues, is a national problem:

On my very first phone call with Jen Stefano as my new [AFP] regional director, I asked her if declining tea party engagement was just an Arkansas problem or if everyone was experiencing that. Her comment was that it’s a problem everywhere.

At the time, Cline and Stefano were prominent figures within AFP. As the director of AFP-Arkansas, Cline led one of AFP’s strongest chapters. Stefano is a national regional director for AFP and a fixture on Fox News and Fox Business News. If they believe tea party support is drying up, the problem is probably real. AFP spokesman Levi Russell declined to comment, and Stefano did not respond to a request for comment.

Henry Kriegel, the Montana Tea person, somehow thought it was a sign of robust health that pollsters have found one-third of Americans support the Tea Party. He also claims the remaining membership is “somewhat better educated, slightly more affluent, and have slightly less minority involvement.” The way Kriegel uses the term, “slightly,” makes you think he is involved in way more horseshoe games that political struggles. Interestingly, Kriegel is now deputy director for the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity – Montana.

It has already been well documented that this political season the Tea Party has been lacking. Their adherents in US Senate and other high profile races have all been crushed by the establishment candidates within the Republican ranks.

I wonder if it’s not more than a long-in-the-tooth membership that’s the issue for the Tea Party, because god knows angry old people are still a dime a dozen, and they vote faithfully. You can’t build any party or organization by losing, no matter how much money coagulates with the fiery, blood thirst of the members.

I wonder if the Koch Brothers looked at all of the teeth when they bought the Tea Party leadership and ensconced them in paying jobs within the AFP structure. I wonder if their greed at acquiring a grassroots base and movement on the cheap by buying off the leadership didn’t also bleed the heart of the movement as they sold their agenda, rather than the populist pleadings of the Tea Party.

Admittedly, this is their problem, not mine, but organizations are organizations and parties are parties, so like it or not, they are all more the same than they are different.

The Unwinding and the New America

17139513Missoula     Unwinding is kind of a funny word. You know what it is, something unraveling, rope or wire coming off the spool. It takes a while for it to sink in as a concept or in George Packer’s sense as a statement of the modern condition of the politically and economically fractured America in his National Book Award for nonfiction, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. I had the book sitting on a stack since last Christmas, a gift from my brother, and had thought about reading it several times, but was in no hurry. I had read Packer’s pieces in The New Yorker, and some of them were substantially included in The Unwinding, so I figured, what was my hurry, so much to read and learn, and so little time.

Nonetheless, eleven days off-the-grid without total confidence in my jerry-rigged solar power system had me throwing the book into the extra room in my son’s bag along with what is turning out to be a great book on the revolution in Nicaragua by Stephen Kinzer called Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua and the new book about Regan and the 1970’s, whose 800 pages, should more than get me home along with my Kindle. The short story is that The Unwinding turns out to be a strange and wonderful book, and that’s not just because it mentions ACORN several times, features as one of its profiles a community organizer from Youngstown, Ohio, looks at Tampa, Florida without blinders, and for that reason alone could be one of my daughter’s favorite books when she reads it, lambasts banks, features the tragedy of workers without work and foreclosures catching families and flippers, and unmasks the transactional, superficial nature of big-time Washington politics. No, it’s not “just because,” but it’s because all of that is in one book painting a stark picture of America without any sugar in the coffee.

And, I didn’t even mention the fact that his piece on Andrew Breitbart is objective, relentless, and unforgiving. Nor did I include the fact that his portrait of tech-master, PayPaler, hedgefunder Peter Thiel and his libertarian makes it seems like Silicon Valley is one long look into an abyss without a bottom, just coreless, valueless, and vapid. Heck, I might as well mention, with ACORN International sitting on a 20,000 gallon per month mobile biodiesel rig in the garage of our new building, Packer at the very end of book gave me a clue at how we might salvage some cash flow to finally make that baby pump some sweet diesel for the people. If I made enough to ever itemize, and this book weren’t a gift, I could deduct it, that’s how valuable it was to me.

John Russo, my colleague and comrade who used to run a center for working class studies at Youngstown State gets some well-deserved props and he and Sherry Linkon clearly had significant influence in Packer’s look at what happens in deindustrialization. Tammy Thomas is the feature of that set of stories, and darned if she doesn’t become a community organizer with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Committee (MVOC), whose organizers I met and worked with a couple of years ago along with Kirk Noden, who continues to do important work with his Ohio organizational formation. I might have recommended this book for organizers just for the section that talks about how much Tammy and some of her members “love actions.” Rarely do we stumble on such kernels of pure truth in mainstream works. Couple that with the profile of the Working Families Party organizer, Nelini Stamp, and her intersection with Occupy Wall Street, and, yes, the anonymous Bill is really our old comrade, Bill Lipton, making a cameo appearance, and you have a book that should be on all of our reading lists.

Maybe the fact that this book won a big award means that some people actually read it. Let’s hope so because this is a book of sad tales and courageous struggle without a happy ending, but an ending that is still in all of our hands and in the making to see if we can rewind what has now been unwound everywhere in America.

Congress Declares Truce with ACORN – Finally We Hope!

300-congressMissoula    There may be signs of a thaw in the blood war that Republicans in Congress have been waging against ACORN’s corpse in the United States. According to the best count by the Huffington Post there were thirteen times that ACORN was banned from receiving any support from the government after leadership and management threw in the towel and formally declared bankruptcy for the US organization in November 2010. Given the attention that has been paid to this weird necrophilia by the House Appropriations Committee, it now appears that none of the “banning” language has been included in any of the minor or major appropriations bills since mid-January of this year.

Spokespeople for the Committee have refused reporters’ requests for comment on whether or not they have finally stopped this silliness, but earlier they had referred to such bans as boilerplate language inserted in all appropriations. All of which was bizarre to read in things like the Defense budget and many others that had never funded any of the ACORN family of organizations. My old Latin teacher from high school, Dr. Romeo, himself a polio victim, used to call this a coup de grace and then ask the class what that phrase meant in English, and demand that the answer had to be “kicking a cripple.”

All of this was kind of ticking me off to tell the truth. This year I spent no small amount of time with several lawyers looking at the legal avenues to sue to stop this foolishness which was chilling and intimidating to organizations doing the work. Some of the bans were ridiculously broad and named ACORN, “its subsidiaries,” and “its successors” all of which in my view, and I would believe anyone else’s with sound mind and judgment, was way, way past the original language of the Congressional resolution in 2009 and essentially nothing more than a pile-on. This year, I finally read the court’s decision claiming this was not a “bill of attainder” barred specifically in the Constitution, but a huge part of that decision was based on the premise that this ban was temporary and limited. Continuing to embellish and expand the ban to other organizations, including many unions and other nonprofits who never could have been classified as even remotely part of the ACORN “family” undermined the decision, and of course keeping it evergreen for years after the original ban, made it permanent, not temporary.

My good legal friends and scholars kept dissuading me because in their view for a plaintiff to prevail there had to be an immediate injury. An organization named, and there were hundreds, and willing to be a plaintiff would need to establish that they had applied for such funding and been denied because of this ban. The fact that it was chilling to many organizations activities and work because the ban even existed and named them was a grievous injustice, they had no doubt, but in the American legal system, justice and the courts have been delinked. Essentially my legal brothers and sisters were patient and sympathetic, but I could tell that they were really telling me, “hey, Wade, we love you buddy, but call us when you’re not tilting at windmills.”

So I want to believe this ban is now finally moot. I would like to believe there is finally a truce of sorts. The Huffington Post headline had blared, “House Republicans Finally Surrender to ACORN,” but I know that’s not true, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed and my eyes peeled on those bad boys, because they’re up to no good and not to be trusted. I’ll let you know when I think differently, but for now it seems it’s safe to allow small children out in the yard to play and organizers to do their work in the USA again.

Trombone Shorty and Brown Trout

Top Hat Lounge logo in Missoula where Trombone Shorty played

Top Hat Lounge logo in Missoula where Trombone Shorty played

Missoula   Don’t get me wrong, the pluses of some time off-the-grid in the beauty and harshness of the great American west in Montana, also come with some minuses. A 1978 Airstream stands long and tall against the rocks on the mountainside, but is a constant, shiny target for every possible critter with four legs that takes it as a shining beacon hiding who knows what goodies and presenting a personal challenge. A 1979 Toyota pickup is the tortoise to the many hares of the highway as well. The spare tire was stolen over the winter by someone who understood how hard it might be to find another, and we’re still looking if you have a clue. Having the gas gauge and the lights work, we called a “win,” and laughed at the fact that the air conditioning and radio still were even held in place.

All of which of course means that coming back to civilization isn’t easy either. Puttering into town on four-cylinders in a 35 year old ride with 60 mph our top speed on Interstate 90 posted at 75 mph, or the rutted dirt that marks a normal tour on Rock Creek road and becomes an obstacle course of washboard and water pools potted along the route after the rain. A 45 mile journey easily drifts into an hour-and-a-half each way, sucking out a substantial part of the day when Missoula is calling with emails to be answered, Skype and cell calls to be made, and provisions, supplies, and repairs being required. Add to that a shower and a quick visit doing a load of wash at a friend’s, and we felt lucky to see the Silver Bullet at 6pm, having left in a morning fog at 9am.

We were undaunted though. Having been chased away twice the evening before by lightning and hard rain, Chaco and I were on either side of the creek, several hundred yards from each other, casting for all our might in no time. He was working the bank, and I was in the cool water up to my shins, glad to be out of the heat of town. Within five minutes a small trout picked up my lure in a riffle fifteen feet away in an almost lazy way, and spit it out five feet later, as if to say, “Hey, my mistake, this never happened.” You say to yourself, oh, well, it’s beautiful, but this is going to be one of those days. A half-hour later, still working myself down the river in the stumble bum, spastic way that humbles every fisherman on the tricky, slippery rocks who ever thought he had good balance on dry land. Casting towards the road side of the creek, I was snagged for a bit, so ended up wading across in my sandals and jeans until I could jerk the line free. I was surprised how much faster and deeper the water was on the other side next to the steep bank that Chaco always embraced, and I had always avoided.

But, if that’s where you find yourself, you make the best of it. Several minutes later I had a hard strike casting towards the middle. Another couple of minutes and the line tugged downstream and it wasn’t long before I had pulled a small brown trout up to the bank and in the creel. It was what we call a “breakfast brown,” large enough to keep, but more a snack than a meal. Always nice to catch the first of the season though, if for no other reason than to get it out of the way and relax the rest of the week. I would settle if I had to. I had spotted Chaco upstream off and on, so I knew he either had reel problems or was catching a few.

I cast out towards a rock downstream and reeled the line through a pool below me under an overhanging tree branch. Suddenly my whole rod was pulled down and bent at an arc from the tip. Something big had grabbed me and taken the line down and was fighting. Moments later the water boiled twenty feet down from me as the fish fought the hook in a frenzy. I still couldn’t see what I had, but I kept trying to reel whatever might be there into me so I could figure out whether I could get it into a net or take a chance of flipping it into the grass on the bank. All the while the trout kept fighting and pulling. Finally only feet away from me, I could see the fish, while gripping and pulling the rod, I managed to stagger near enough to the bank to lift the fish up into the weeds about chest level. It seemed huge, but my first thought when the sun hit the specks along the glistening beauty of the trout, was, “Please don’t be a rainbow!” Last year and again this year, rainbows on Rock Creek require a release, and I was already debating whether I had the character to let him go, when, seeing no rock at hand, I grabbed him by the gills, twisted the hook out of his mouth, and forced his fat, brown and red speckled body into the opening of the creel, firmly fixed under my arm, where my elbow held him tight. He was one of the biggest brown trout I’d ever caught on Rock Creek without a doubt!

Exhilarated, I took ten more casts, counting them carefully, because I knew this was going to top my evening. Scrambling up the bank, Chaco must have had the same idea, because he was already walking up the road towards me. He signaled “three” to me and I signaled “two” back. Suddenly it had become a great day!

Getting to the bridge, a US Forest Service ranger was pulling out and stopped by us. A helicopter had been steadily flying overhead with a bucket since we had been on the river, so we asked how close the fire was. “Around the ravine,” he replied, “but only about three acres.” We commented that we had been sensing smoke since we hit Rock Creek, and he thought it was mainly coming from Oregon. I mentioned how bizarre it had been to watch giant helicopters with 200 gallon buckets fight fires in New Orleans after Katrina, flying back and forth to the Mississippi River to fill up, but was there a lake around here or how were they managing to get water. He said their bucket was smaller, only about 160 gallons, and there was a deep spot in the river below us not far, and the current filled up the bucket quickly.

“But, you’re from New Orleans, right? You know Trombone Shorty? He was in town last night. It was a great show! Wow! I didn’t want to come to work this morning.”

I smiled and said, “Or any morning on a day like this, huh?” He grinned, we all waved. He drove away, and we walked over to the other bank and cleaned our fish, giddy with happiness.


Best of the Blog – Fair Trade

Wade is off the grid, so please enjoy this re-posting of a blog on Fair Trade from October 2011.

NeFairTrade-300x300w Orleans While I was out of the country it seems Paul Rice, the CEO of FairTrade USA, came to speak at one of the local colleges, Tulane University, as part of a promo for a new department on civic engagement and social entrepreneurship there.  He seems to have argued that “profitability and sustainability were compatible” according to the report in the Times-Picayune by Naomi Martin.  Though Martin raises the issue of whether or not producers are “compensated fairly” at one point, she reports perhaps more correctly that with “’fair trade’ goods…suppliers are compensated at a higher rate than they would be otherwise.”

ACORN International is preparing to issue a report that looks more carefully at the claims of fair trade products and attempts to sort out the substance from the sizzle.  Additionally, since I’m wrapping my arms more firmly against the real business of buying and selling fair trade coffee and other products at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans, I’m also learning the real lessons that can be wildly different than what we hope might be the case every time we take a gulp.

I originally became skeptical of some of these claims while visiting with our partners, the women’s coffee and aloe vera cooperative, COMUCAP, in Marcala, Honduras in the mountains of the La Paz district, several hours from Tegucigalpa.  The way fair trade certification works there is a slight premium for fair trade certified coffee over the bulk market price of roughly a 10% per pound and if also certified as organic, then add roughly another quarter a pound.  This is what the actual producers with dirt on their hands receive at the point of production.
In the article Tulane professor Rick Aubry averred that “FairTrade USA has leveraged the consuming power of people who buy coffee and bananas in a way that lifts the millions of people who grow those products out of poverty.”  Wow!  I wish!!!

Looking at a Food First! Study a couple of years ago, the real economics are clearer:
In March of 2007, FLO [the international certifying agency] raised the floating Fairtrade premium from 5 cents to 10 cents [per pound], and the Organic differential—the additional premium for coffee that is certified Organic—from 15 to 20 cents (FLO, 2007a). This move came in response to a cost study by a farmers union that showed that Fairtrade prices were below the cost of production for many farmers.

Couple this with the fact that a that time the pricing by the certifiers was:
The trademarked Fair Trade Certified packaging label informs consumers that farmers received a $1.26 price floor and a 10 cent (floating) price premium above the market price.

By the time Fair Grinds makes a purchase either through national suppliers like Café Campesino on the West Coast or Gene’s Beans in Boston or wherever the cost after roasting and delivery is pushing $10 bucks a pound now.   Getting fair trade right off the docks at the Port of New Orleans, which we are now doing since we started managing the coffeehouse, we are paying almost that same rate for the finished beans.  The premium that is still sitting at the bottom of that cup of coffee for the real producers is mighty damn small and puny, and certainly not a ticket out of poverty for the farmers I have met and spoken to in Honduras and elsewhere.

The notion in a competitive market that Fair Grinds can charge more than Starbucks and other local competitors also seems wrong.  FairTrade USA (formally TransFair USA) may have some surveys that indicate that people say they will pay substantially more, but many on the other side of the counter do not hear the willingness in a recession to go as high as the claim.  Of course Costa’s, the big international coffeehouse chain, charges a quarter more for a fair-trade cup of coffee and simply keeps the quarter, while the customer is hoping somehow that they just helped the poor farmer in the global south.
What’s my point?  Yes, we need to support fair-trade.  But, we also need to do more to make sure that this is not simply marketing and hype and that the money really does move to improve the livelihoods of the producers and their communities.  This is part of real transparency as well, and we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors in the rest of the world to not just feel good, but to do good.