CDS Column Archives: Gun Talk

CDS Column Archives: Gun Talk

d8a5e-s-1070996Sometimes a conversation seems impossible to begin.

Sometimes there is something critically important to talk about, but the words never find their way out.

Sometimes. Like now.

About 10 days ago I walked into a high school cafeteria. It was me and 20 others, surrounded by low ceilings, folding bench tables and fluorescent lights at a school in southern New Hampshire. The class: hunter safety.

It came in two parts: a Friday night, where we learned the basics, then a week off before a Saturday and Sunday of more lessons and a day of field training. That night we went over the seasons for different game, the importance of wildlife conservation, the parts of a gun and the rules of gun safety. We learned about hunting strategies, the importance of approaching landowners before going on their property, basic survival skills and what to do should we become lost. And we learned about guns. We learned about muzzle control, about keeping your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot, about treating every gun as if it’s loaded and ensuring your shooting path is clear both up to your target and beyond.

That was Friday. Six days later a 26-year-old Oregon man walked into his college English classroom heavily armed and wearing body armor. He shot more than a dozen people. Nine died. The man then killed himself. It was the 294th mass shooting (more than four people killed or injured) this year.

Two days later I was back in southern New Hampshire, back beneath the glowing fluorescent lights. It was phase two of hunter safety, which, let’s face it, is primarily a course on gun safety.

“Muzzle control, muzzle control, muzzle control,” the instructor, Bob, told us over and over again. “If you learn one thing from this class, I want you to learn muzzle control.”

Learning about guns in the wake of a mass shooting can leave you wondering about your choices. This was, after all, not the first time this had happened to me. In 2012 a friend of mine, a firearms instructor, took me to the pistol range to teach me about handguns. I went back a handful of times and was having fun with it until 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into a Connecticut elementary school and shot 20 first-graders. He brought with him the same make gun as I’d been shooting. It was the worst elementary or high school shooting in history, and in its wake handguns didn’t seem so “fun” anymore. I have not shot one since.

A taste of that came back this weekend. I took the course because I had this whole ideology behind hunting: I like meat, and I’m more than happy to eat hamburgers, bacon and chicken, but I, like many Americans, have become estranged from what goes into what I eat. My fondness for steak aside, I would struggle to kill a cow if one were put before me.

Or a pig. Or a chicken. I signed up for a hunter safety course because I wanted to acknowledge that disconnect between my appetite and my actions. The act of ordering buffalo wings or pepperoni sets in motion a whole string of market forces that are in fact a complex version of pulling the trigger, and I wanted to acknowledge my part in that killing. Not to call it wrong, but just to recognize my place within it.

But when someone takes that same trigger and turns it on a crowd all of the sudden my interest in guns feels dirty by association.

And the conversation that follows leaves me embarrassed. In the wake of the shooting, as after every shooting these days (there seem to be a lot of them), the sharp claws came out. Snarky memes like “Timothy McVeigh didn’t use a gun, yet you can still buy gasoline, fertilizer, and rent a box truck” line up against charts depicting the number of Americans killed since 2001 by guns (406,496) and terrorism (3,380). The sides are picked—gun-rights or gun control—and the yelling begins. It’s a broken conversation, one we are all caught in and caught by, one almost assuredly better to sit out than to join.

In a way America reminds me of myself eating the chicken without recognizing my part in the killing. Those numbers—406,496 versus 3,380—clearly portray the American disconnect. We fought two wars and instituted sweeping government overhauls to combat terrorism, a risk that takes less than one percent of the lives of gun violence. How are we so blind to 30,000 deaths a year and yet so prepared to fervently fight a shadow? How are we not at least compelled to talk about guns?

It shouldn’t be that complex a discussion; this isn’t the first time something quintessentially American has been killing us an out of control rate. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it was the automobile. Between 1966 and 1974 more than 50,000 people a year died in car wrecks. So the government began requiring automakers to install seatbelts, police began enforcing drunk driving laws and states began requiring passengers to buckle up. The results were dramatic: fatalities dropped even as the number of cars on the road increased. By 2013 there were 32,719 automotive-related deaths, 917 fewer than caused that year by guns.

America did not need to get rid of cars to make its citizens safer. It just had to be smarter, more considered, about its car policy. The same is true of guns: America does not need to get rid of them, but we need to be smarter. The country needs to take a hard look at the disconnect between the rhetoric about protecting American lives and the laissez-faire policies that contribute to 30,000 dead Americans each year.

It shouldn’t be that hard, but it can only begin with a conversation.


This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in October of 2015.

Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

PP-1030179How long does it take to turn a ship? How long does it take to change course, to do something different, to avoid the metaphorical icebergs?

I say “metaphorical icebergs” because the risk of real icebergs is dwindling. It’s a warming world. Things they are melting, and there are real risks hiding behind the warmth: rising sea levels, drought, severe storms. These are the icebergs. Which of the levers do the turning? Does anyone understand the controls?

I spoke to ecologist Gene Likens last week, the scientist who discovered acid rain in North America. It took a generation to get from initial discovery to the passage of legislation aimed at curbing the pollution that caused it, or as Likens puts it, “27 years, three presidents and one pope.”

There are important things to note in that timeline: his first study, for example, came out 9 years after the discovery, meaning 27 years falls to 18 from when the information was publicly available. And it wasn’t until a 1974 study that newspapers picked up the story. That’s when acid rain really became a household issue; now we’re down to 16 years.

16 years is not the generation 27 years nears. It is, however, a long time. Likens said his science faced pushback from industry. Entrenched interests like oil and coal rejected the premise they had any responsibility for acid rain. It took proving that link scientifically to end the argument.

Of course such proof is important—there is no use in regulating an industry innocent of the charges. If it wasn’t oil and coal those laws would have just been more wasted time.

But every day that passed was a lost opportunity. More acid fell from the sky. There is a saying that the only two days that are impossible to change are yesterday and tomorrow. A lot of todays, however, went by in inaction, todays that could have turned the ship.

Arctic sea ice volume since 1979.

Now we face a different iceberg. Scientifically climate change is undisputed. The argument over human involvement remains, but the planet is getting hotter. And every today gets us closer to whatever comes next. Perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps it is catastrophe.

Likens compared the struggle over acid rain science with what’s happening today with climate change. “The pushback was just like it is now,” he said, again pointing to entrenched interests. Another generation-long fight could be in store.

A decade ago An Inconvenient Truth exploded the conversation about climate change, much like the New York Times coverage of the 1974 acid rain report. So if we benchmark the two, we’re at 10 years. Maybe we can match 16; maybe some course alteration will come down in 2022. That is a long way off, but it’s also almost here.

And what would it mean? What would turning the ship at this moment do? Are we surrounded by icebergs already? Are the coming changes beyond our power to affect? Are we simply too late, caught in a disaster impossible to avoid?

Who knows.That falls to tomorrow, one of those days you can’t change. But we can change today. But to do that we need to have faith in science, something seemingly in short supply with some.

An illustration of global temperature change for the last 166 years.

Science is not the conspiracy of one man. It’s multilayered work, an exploration of chance, a process of search more than an answer. And while it can be mistaken (think of early experiments aimed to determine whether light was a particle or a wave—it behaves like both), those missteps are part of the process. The call is always daring to be proven wrong. Scientists strive for that, and yet climate change is not proving wrong.

Industry, meanwhile, as Likens pointed out has a mixed record, much more so than science. Tobacco companies, for example, showed the willingness of big business to subvert science for their own ends. Science’s agenda, meanwhile, has no choice but to bend toward truth. It’s built into the method, the practice of the discipline. It may be hard to put the two on a scale, but if you could the weight of replicable results would trump corporate claims, particularly when huge revenue losses enter the conversation. The skeptic sees industry with strong motivation to deceive; scientists, meanwhile, do not gain by being controversial, or by being wrong. They succeed by being right, precise and verifiable.

And these debates are the fulcrum on which the ship turns. Is there still time to spin the wheel? Even science doesn’t know. But we may all get a chance to find out. Tomorrow.

A Tale of Two Studies

A Tale of Two Studies

9129d-ski-1080245The scientist who uncovered acid rain in North America 50 years ago now sees a parallel struggle waging around climate change and the effects of global warming.

“The pushback was just like it is now,” ecologist Gene Likens said on Tuesday, talking about how his research in the White Mountains was received when it went public in the mid-1970s. Big vested business interests and their allies rejected his findings, he said, until he and his teams could show scientifically where the pollutants causing acid rain were coming from—industrial polluters in the Midwest.

From initial discovery to the enactment of new rules limiting those polluters took nearly a generation. Or, as Likens likes to put it, “27 years, three presidents and one pope.”

Now, he said, he’s watching something similar happen with climate change.

Likens research and his legacy are intimately tied to the White Mountains. It began in 1963 when Likens was a professor at Dartmouth College. He was the lead scientist of a team studying streamwater chemistry in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest outside Lincoln, the U.S. Forest Service’s forest-laboratory of the White Mountains. His team wanted to know how the forest worked, to understand the inputs and outputs, what made it tick. They weren’t looking for anything specific, Likens said, but what they they found surprised them: water infused with sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, a concoction capable of leaching aluminum from the soil and depositing it downstream in lakes and rivers, and also capable of killing insects, fish and plants along the way.

What they found was acid rain.

“The very first sample of rain we collected was very acidic,” said Likens, with acidity levels 100 times above normal. “Nobody knew there was a problem,” he said. “It was pure serendipity. So much of science is that way. We didn’t set out to discover acid rain. It was there and we ran with it.”

Their research led to an article in the journal Environment in 1972. Two years later Likens, now a professor at Cornell University, replicated the experiment in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, where again they found sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides in the water. He and a colleague published again published their findings, this time in the journal Science.

That’s when their research got noticed.

“It was picked up by the New York Times,” Likens said. “It ran on the front page.”

The year was 1974. Acid rain for the first time was in national headlines. It would be another 16 years before Congress passed revisions to the Clean Air Act to curb the industrial pollution that was the cause.

From acid rain’s discovery in 1963 to Congressional action in 1990, all of it started in the White Mountains, in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, which Likens calls one of the most studied ecosystems on the planet.

“We are much more effective stewards when we have long-term monitoring to guide us,” Likens said, “but the reality is such studies are quite rare.”

Likens research has included collecting decades of stream water chemistry data and associated rainfall information, creating one of the longest such records for any site on Earth. “And I’m still doing it,” he said.

And scientists in other disciplines have been doing similar work, leaving long records that allow researchers to see trends over time.

“So with climate change we can say what happened,” Likens said, “and what is happening.”

Birds in the forest, for example, are arriving earlier. Buds sprout earlier. Mirror Lake, “probably one of the most studied lakes in the world,” he said, is now covered by ice 20 days less each winter than in years past. The planet is definitely warming.

But when it comes to climate change some people push back against the science. And they doubt human involvement. Likens said he seen this before, that it was the same debate over causation that raged with acid rain.

But as a researcher, Likens said, his job is not to get lost in those arguments. A researcher’s job is to continue working, he said, to explore and examine, to collect data and ensure a record exists of what happens in the world.

“I’m not an advocate,” Likens said. “I’m not a politician. I’m a scientist.”


A version of this story ran in Saturday’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Cuba, A One-Hour Visit

CDS Column: Cuba, A One-Hour Visit

IMG_8150How do you explain a country?

It’s a presumptuous task. I’ve taken six trips to Cuba in the last year, spent a little over two months there, visited a handful of towns, climbed in the western mountains, swam in the clear blue Caribbean, danced in Salsa wherever I could and wandered the Malecon. I’ve also listened to multiple professors discuss topics from trade to transgender rights, studied their history and talked politics with the people.

But still. The Cuban/American relationship is so embattled, so complex, how do you boil it down to an hour talk?

Jamie Gemmiti photo

That was Thursday night. The North Conway Public Library asked me about giving a slideshow on Cuba, about what it’s like to go there. I agreed—I fell in love with the country, and after a handful of visits it was clear the island was vastly misunderstood at home.

How? Communism, for example: Cuba is a country of small-scale entrepreneurs running restaurants and rooming houses out of their homes. There is a hustle to these new businesses, a creative energy akin to the growing food truck culture of the United States.

These enterprises exist against a backdrop of state-run restaurants and hotels that Cubans themselves will tell you are bad, not worth visiting. The state-run enterprises get government funding, but they also suffer from the endemic sluggishness of businesses allowed to bloom without fear of competition. Communism exists in Cuba, but it is no longer ubiquitous. It is the dead skin the country is still working to slough off.

And history. Explaining the longstanding Cuban desire for an independent state to Americans is an upstream paddle. We remember the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crisis but have forgotten the Spanish-American War. Cubans remember both. And their version of those stories are different from ours.

Cuba was a Spanish slave colony for hundreds of years, a satellite possession rich in sugar. But that wealth was siphoned off. The island was populated by serfs and a few wealthy masters who minded the plantations.

But in the mid-1800s a handful of those masters grew distasteful of the inequality surrounding them. Like American patriots 100 years before, they began writing and speaking about a freedom and building a national consciousness where previously there had been none.

Then in the 1890s they went to war with Spain, and the United States joined the fight. Cubans reasoned American assistance was offered in solidarity—America too had once been a colonial possession. But when the war was over and Cuba “liberated” freedom proved to be in name only: the country traded one overlord for another. Their protector became their new master.

That is not history most Americans remember, or how most Americans remember that history. But island stayed as it was: a land of serfs ruled by far off masters. Their dreams of freedom were deferred.

Enter the revolution. In American eyes it was the insidious growth of communism. But to Cubans it was the realization of a long held dream, one of national self-determination and governance. Nearly 200 years after Americans threw off the yoke of colonialism by kicking out the British Cubans got to do the same, but the oppressor they had to expel wore the Stars and Stripes.

Again, not a story Americans are used to hearing. But walk around downtown Havana and you’ll see indications of just how much influence the American Revolution had on Cuban thinking. Statues and depictions of U.S. presidents dot the city. Their words are inscribed on Cuban monuments. Cubans feel a brotherhood with anyone striving for freedom, regardless of past (or current) animosity. It is a refreshing view of the world.

And that’s how the people are too: not once in six trips did I have a Cuban cuss me out for being American. Indeed, what I experienced was the opposite—excitement that I was visiting their homeland, that I was interested in their country. Tell a Cuban you’re from America and they’ll smile wide. They’ll grab your hand and shake it vigorously. They clap you on the shoulder and tell you “Welcome!” This is not the response of an enemy; it is the reaction of a long-missed friend.

And that’s what’s so hard to explain. To Americans Cuba’s isolation and glaring absence from the standard diplomatic worldview has gone largely unnoticed. And when it pops up it is something askew, a decision that is their fault, the result of their bad behavior. That is our reading our history.

But for Cubans the country they feel most akin to walked out on them. Their cultural touchstone, indeed their inspiration for independence, shut the door on them. That it is now cracking back open is a joyous thing.

I gave a slideshow on Thursday about Cuba. It was mostly words and pictures, sunsets and sand beaches. Those things are beautiful, and Cuba is rich with them.

But it’s much harder to capture the island’s palpable emotion, the joy that rekindled relations has brought the Cuban people. It’s a warmth of welcome Americans struggle with—our enemies of 60 years are often deeply demonized, universally denounced as “evil.” Few people say of Iraqis and Afghans, Iranians, North Koreans or Cubans “but the people, they are our kin.” They are more often viewed as hostile collaborators, willing supporters, people to be feared. The governments and the governed are viewed through one lens.

That is where Cubans are most refreshing: 60 years of exclusion and they still haven’t lost their sense of nuance. The American people are not the embargo, nor are they the travel ban. They are people, just like their Cuban counterparts, and people are meant to be welcomed, embraced, warmly greeted, regardless of politics or history. Cubans know that.

Amid the pictures of Afro-Cuban street musicians and colonial cityscapes I would have done well to mention that more.


This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

Tweeting Shrimp

Tweeting Shrimp

IMG_7918-1Last week I wrote a post about chasing snapping shrimp down the Pacific Coast and sent it off into the internet-sphere. The whole piece/story/adventure revolved around a Radiolab podcast on the little crustaceans with the fire of the sun in their palm, so after I wrote it I shot a copy Radiolab’s way just for fun.


I love Radiolab. In a world where most science reporting is more about the controversy and who said what about something than on the basic facts and merits of the matter Radiolab brings a sense of wonder to the genre. They tell their stories with nuance and complexity, allowing the pieces of this world that are amazing to stand on their own. (If you want one of the best examples, check out their story The Rhino Hunter, one of the most stunning pieces on the complexity of modern conservation I’ve ever heard.) I wait each week for the next episode to download; their success at telling longform stories in the Twitter Age is remarkable.

So it was nice to see their name tagged next to mine. YEAH!

Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”

Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”
DSC01212-2 1
Glidden on Washington Column.

What does it take to climb a 3,000-foot cliff?

For Enoch Glidden, a 37-year-old wheelchair-bound climber born with spina bifida, it might sound like a complex challenge built around planning, hundreds of feet of rope, specially designed climbing equipment and more.

But ask him what it takes, and he doesn’t give a complex answer. The Western Maine native keeps it simple: Climbing a 3,000-foot cliff requires friends.

“Nobody does anything without help, disabled or not,” he said.

Next fall Glidden is headed to Yosemite Valley, Calif., the mecca of American rock climbing, with plans to climb El Capitan, the massive granite touchstone for rock climbers worldwide. He’s been there once, last year, and despite his inability to move his legs, he climbed 600 feet up a towering granite rock face.

“It’s possible,” he said. It just comes down to a question he’s asked himself over and over: “How can I?”

That is the theme of the slide show Glidden will be giving Saturday night at International Mountain Equipment in North Conway. “Go Beyond the Fence” discusses his trip last fall and is a step on the road to his next challenge, El Capitan.

“That question has come up my whole life,” Glidden said. “How can I?” He got his first wheelchair when he was 4. Paralyzed from the waist down, he refuses to let that hold him back: He skis (both downhill and cross-country), competes in wheelchair races, plays basketball and is close to getting his pilot’s license. When he sees a challenge he runs at it, and four years ago the new challenge he discovered was climbing.

“It’s just kind of the ultimate challenge,” he said. “It’s all me to get up there.”

He started in New York with Paradox Sports, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to adaptive sports. That led him to ice climbing closer to home — he’s attended Paradox Ice events in North Conway the past three years.

In Yosemite last year, he and a team climbed up Washington Column, a granite tower a few miles north of El Capitan.

But as he said, these kinds of climbs don’t happen alone.

“Pretty much everywhere I go, someone volunteers,” Glidden said. Last fall they had a team of four the night before the planned ascent. By the next morning, their team was up to double digits. People just seem to want to be involved, Glidden said. “I did one presentation, and a whole bunch of people volunteered.”

The group hiked to the base of Washington Column, carrying Glidden over broken rock and talus. They climbed 500 feet up, spent the night, then climbed another 100 feet the next day.

“Two climbers go ahead and set the rope,” Glidden said, “and then I do pull-ups on the rope.”

He has a special rope-climbing device rigged with a mini pull-up bar, he said, which he uses to climb the rope.

“The hardest part is living on the wall,” he said. He can’t stand up, so he can’t move around easily. That makes routine tasks like dressing and going to the bathroom difficult. “You can train for pull-ups. You can’t train for the portaledge,” the fabric platform he uses for resting and sleeping, he said.

But he learned a lot on that trip, worked out many of the kinks. Now “I’m pretty much dialed in,” he said. For his trip this year he won’t be scouring around Yosemite for partners. “This time I’m bringing people with me.”

The climb will take five days and nights, and involve sleeping on the side of the cliff. Glidden will again ascend a rope strung up by partners, doing thousands upon thousands of pull-ups over the course of the ascent. This will be by far the biggest climbing challenge he’s attempted.

But in some ways the vertical world is easier than some of the challenges that come before. First, he has to get to the wall. It’s a steep walk over rough terrain to get to the base of Zodiac, his planned route up El Capitan’s right flank.

That’s where the friends come in: helping get him to the climb, not just up it, and then also off the top of El Capitan and down. He’s got 14 people planning to join for some part of the mission, but it’s still up to him to do all those pull-ups. There will be a crew shooting video, plus Glidden blogging, and Paradox Sports and the Spina Bifida Foundation of Greater New England will be broadcasting the climb as well.

But all that is in October. For now, Glidden is still training, still getting ready for the challenge ahead. He’s been taking lessons from Sean O’Neill of Brownfield, Maine, who pioneered many climbing techniques for paraplegics. O’Neill climbed El Capitan by the same route in 2006, also doing thousands of pull-ups.

“He basically taught me everything,” Glidden said.

And along with training, he’s pulling together the funds to get himself out there. He just finished his degree in computer information systems, and he’s planning to intern for the summer in Palo Alto, Calif.

“The day that ends I’m going to Yosemite to go climbing,” he said.

But Saturday night at IME, 2733 White Mountain Highway, North Conway, the Mount Washington Valley will get a taste of his ascent, with video shot from his trip last fall. And Glidden wille discussing that all-important question, “How can I?”

The event will be held upstairs at IME on Main Street in North Conway Village. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with free beer courtesy of Tuckerman’s Brewery. The film portion will begin at 7 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $10.

This story appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Socialized Soldiers on Quieter Battlefields

CDS Column: Socialized Soldiers on Quieter Battlefields

Iraq-1020772The ceilings hung squat and low, traced by fluorescent lights dotted among recessed tiles. The hallway was dingy, scraped paint along bare walls and floors that wouldn’t shine no matter the scrubbing applied. Worn signs hung on the bathroom doors, faded now after too many handprints, only half the words now visible. Someone redrew the head on the men’s bathroom symbol, but they’d drawn it square. Inside, a black Magic Markered smiley face stared out.

It didn’t look like a hospital. Or it didn’t look like an American hospital, particularly not one in a major city. American hospitals are shiny and well-lit, with glass walls and artwork lining the corridors. They are regal, siblings to university buildings and museums and federal government offices.

But this wasn’t. What came to mind was Cuba — the dark hallways and simple plastic-upholstered seats lining the waiting room walls in the public clinics, the cement stairwells and overcrowding.

But even in Cuba the lines of patients move. People get seen promptly. Not here.

The emergency department was full. Some people stood along the walls. The woman behind the desk said it was a five-hour wait, maybe more.

“Busy day?” my friend asked.

“No,” the woman said looking apologetic. “This isn’t bad.”

We sat down beneath an overhead television. It was 1 p.m. The afternoon soaps were on.

Seven hours later, the evening news was coming to a close. Our wait also was ending.

Welcome to the VA system.

I’ve heard not every Veterans Affairs hospital is the same. Some, I’m told, don’t feel caught in the Soviet era. I don’t know; I’m not a veteran, and I’ve only ever been to one VA hospital. But that one visit was disturbing enough.

My friend and I were in San Diego. Our visits to California overlapped by a few days, so we decided to team up for some surfing, snorkeling and exploring the city.

But on day two she began complaining of lower back pain. An Air Force vet, she Googled the local VA services. There was a hospital on the outskirts of the city, just outside La Jolla Cove where we’d been snorkeling the day before.

She looked at me. “This should be fun,” she said.

Being a veteran, she knew. I did not. But within a few steps of walking in the door I understood viscerally. All the news stories I’d heard in recent years came flooding back, about long wait times and how the head of the VA had resigned and the system was again due an overhaul. It was akin to walking into an inner-city school — one look was enough to know the facility was under-resourced, that the job it was expected to do far exceeded its capacity. Long waits, substandard care, lost files and missed diagnoses seemed to ooze from every exam room. This was less a hospital than a holding pen. Prisons are better equipped.

And sitting there I had ample time to consider the string of ironies I was witnessing. Here I was in a VA hospital, and I kept having flashbacks to Cuba, a country where the population lives on a fraction of the American standard. But despite appearances, Cuban hospitals get better results. Their version of socialized medicine competes favorably with the profit-driven system employed by the United States, and it blows the VA system out of the water. I was looking at America’s finest — the soldiers, airmen, seamen and Marines of the U.S. military — as they were served up the worst of American health care. Some of them may have even served on Cuban shores, may have stood guard on Guantanamo Bay, Cold War warriors who fought the spread of communism.

What did they earn in return for their service? Socialized medicine.

It almost made me laugh: Fight in honor of American values and you earn guaranteed free government-run health care. “Oppose communism to secure your place in socialism.” I doubt that made it onto many recruiting posters.

But there is a tragedy hidden within the comedy: The modern American application of socialized medicine offers veterans few gifts. They give us their best, and we give them our worst. The VA system is known for wait times that sometimes outlast patients, for diagnoses that come too late. “Support our troops” seems to only hold until the fighting is over. After that we leave them to die on quieter battlefields.

The problem, of course, is not socialized medicine. Plenty of countries pull that off at a high standard — most of Europe, Canada, Costa Rica. But the United States has proven incapable at setting up its own system, even for soldiers. That U.S. soldier who was stationed at Guantanamo Bay may have done better to wander off base to see a doctor than visit the hospitals provided by their own government.

So, every day we rob veterans of what they have earned. We underfund and understaff and under-resource to the point of no return, to the point that servicemen and women die as a result.

It’s easy to blame the bureaucracy, to rest at the myth government can’t run anything well and move on. But that is a farce. Government-run health care works worldwide, just not here.

But the VA has to work. Not marginally, not sluggishly, but well. Efficiently. Smoothly, with dynamism and grace. We owe it to every American willing to pledge more than taxes and a vote every four years for his or her country. It may not have been on the recruiting poster, but it is the promise we made.

And we’ve failed. For a generation now we’ve failed. We’ve accepted the myth that government can’t work, that socialized medicine is doomed to fail, and our soldiers have paid the price for it. Sagging buildings and five-hour wait times are not the best we can do. Our veterans are worth more than that.

This piece appeared in today’s edition of the Conway Daily Sun.

Saving Caucasian Snow

Saving Caucasian Snow
Part of our team on the north summit of Aragats. Tim Terpstra photo

Last September I took a flight from Boston to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a country I had barely heard of and knew even less about. Tucked in between Turkey, Iran and a handful of former Soviet republics, it is an arid plain with a history of invasion and cross-invasion.

It is also home to the Lesser Caucus Mountains, part of the mountain range that divides Europe from Asia. I was there on an American Alpine Club climber exchange, teamed up with Americans, Armenians and Iranians climbing our way across Armenia and Georgia, everything from single-pitch sport and trad routes to alpine snow and ice up 5,000 meter peaks. It was a tremendous three weeks, one full of new friends and meaningful connections.

One of the mountains we climbed along the way was Mount Aragats, the tallest peak in Armenia. (Historically Mount Ararat was the tallest peak in Armenia, but it’s now part of Turkey, and the border is closed. This is a painful fact for Armenians.) Aragats has four distinct summits, the north being the tallest at 13,420 feet. Climbing it means clambering over loose shale and boulders to windswept ridges. Most of the mountain feels unstable, like stacked blocks barely held together. There was one small patch of snow tucked beneath the southern and western summits, but otherwise it was dusty, dry and hot.

Historically, however, the snows of Aragats have held through the summers. They have kept creeks flowing in hotter months. Prior to escalating global temperatures, Aragatan snowfields would last through the year and provide a stable source of water through dry times.

Today, however, high temperatures melt things quickly, leaving the valleys flooded in the spring and parched by fall.

This short documentary by Armenian filmmaker Vardan Hovhannisyan lays out what is happening, and what local scientists are trying to do about it:


Yep. Thermal blankets. Several of us noticed them on our descent—white mounds squirreled away beneath the south summit. We didn’t realize what they were, that they were an attempt to save Aragats’ last few patches of snow. I remember discussing them when we got back to camp, but no one could tell exactly what they were. Now we know.

Blankets. Is that the solution to global warming? For now, the answer in Armenia seems to be yes. But it’s a lot of pressure for a few swath of fabric. What if the blankets insulate too well? Or not well enough? How many do they need to makes sure there is enough water? Do they have to cover the mountain? What happens if things don’t last through the summer?

These are complex questions, ones previously left to nature to ponder. But lately her answers have left Armenians parched. Now it’s up to Armenian scientists to see if they can do better.

When we were there in September our team didn’t know the difference. We didn’t realize we were walking over fields usually covered with snow. We scrambled the bare rocks unaware they normally would be entombed by snow.

To us Armenia was just dry. Now we know why.

Rhinos, Horns, and Compounding Complications

Rhinos, Horns, and Compounding Complications

Moz-1020958I was working this morning when a story about the legalization of the rhino horn trade in South Africa drifted across my computer screen. The South African Supreme Court yesterday struck down a ban on domestic sales of rhinoceros horns. International trade is still illegal, but the verdict makes it possible to now sell horns inside the country.

Harvesting horns can be done without killing the rhinoceros. If the horn is cut off above the root it will grow back. One rhino rancher in the story said he had stockpiled five tons of horns since the domestic ban was implemented in 2009.

But the lifting of the ban opens the door for the sale of illegally harvested horns too. And considering the value of rhino horn, the market demand in Asia and the corruption prevalent in South Africa, it seems destined to bolster the illicit trade.

Two years ago I was in South Africa. I was there for work, but I had time to tour Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa and home to many rhinos. I drove through after a week in Mozambique alongside Majka Burhardt working on a development project in the newly-born Limpopo National Park. The project was short-lived, but it gave me a chance to see Kruger, and Limpopo.

It also gave me a chance to see just how complicated effective conservation can be, even when what is at stake is something as endangered and iconic as rhinoceros.

Limpopo abuts Kruger National Park, sitting just over the Mozambican border. It’s about half the size of Kruger, running roughly half its length. On paper the two are similar—massive game reserves that together form a transnational park—but where Kruger has a 100+ year tradition of conservation Limpopo is brand new. The roads are rough, the facilities primitive, the infrastructure nonexistent. Mozambique is nowhere close to South Africa in its development or its ability to provide effective governance. One South African telling us, “This is real Africa,” like his country was Africa-light.

And it seemed true: South Africa is far more developed than its neighbors. The Mozambican government had hired a team of white South Africans to help implement the new national park and teach Mozambique the techniques that had made Kruger successful. And those South Africans collectively shook their heads at the challenges in Limpopo.

The largest challenge? Poaching. Specifically, rhino poaching. But not in Limpopo; in Kruger. Poachers were using Limpopo as a launching point for excursions into Kruger, where stocks of rhinos were plentiful, and as a refuge for once they had possession of a horn.

Limpopo is a new park, new enough that it still contains villages. As we passed over its rough dirt roads small outposts of huts sprang up. Inhabitants numbering in the dozens, perhaps up to 50. Those villages, according to park officials, are where the poachers live.

But Limpopo lacks animals. In two days there we saw one Cape buffalo. In Kruger we saw whole herds. We saw zero lions, zero elephants, zero hippopotamus. Compared to Kruger Limpopo was desolate, empty of the game that make African parks famous. A hunting concession in its former life, Limpopo was barren. So while the 20th century offered Kruger’s animal populations protection, Limpopo’s fauna faced getting shot. Today anything within its borders is protected, but in reality there isn’t much left to protect.

And according to park officials, the villagers in Limpopo include teams of poachers who sneak across the border to shoot rhinos, hack off the horns with axes and then return home.

As we drove through the villages an official pointed to one of the huts. A pickup truck sat parked out front. “That’s a poacher,” he said. They don’t hide it. They don’t have to.

On the Kruger side, however, they do. In the field it’s often the sound of the ax that gives them away. The chopping—you can hear it for miles. But still, it’s hard to catch them in the act. Often times patrols find the bloody carcass with a snout in tatters.

It would be tempting to just move the villagers, to declare Limpopo a park and demand they find somewhere else to live, but this isn’t 1898. Native people have rights, and like the rhino, they also are in need of protection. Limpopo officials would love to pick up the villages and relocate the inhabitants outside the park, instantly cutting the poachers’ easy access to the rhinos, but in the modern era relocating native people is no simple task. What is the government to do, put them on “reservations” somewhere nearby? The world has a long history of such maneuvers, of taking people pulled from their native soil and forcibly settled on some new plot of land. Few of these tales have happy outcomes.

So in Limpopo the rights of villagers to clash with those of the rhinoceros. Protect the rights of one or the other, but not both. Who should officials prioritize? In hindsight either choice will likely wind up seeming crass and misguided.

But perhaps that is modern conservation: the easy problems have been solved. What’s left are difficult, intractable ones. It might be that way everywhere, not just in Limpopo.

And now South Africa has cracked the door to the rhino horn market. The problem doesn’t grow any simpler.

CDS column: Water, and the Power to Destroy

CDS column: Water, and the Power to Destroy

13246360_1490935164265897_2513155182757045179_oWater. In Fryeburg, Maine, it’s a big deal: 603,000 gallons a day, a multinational company, a legal battle, a state Supreme Court ruling. Water is a very big deal.

I remember when the Fryeburg Water Co. agreement with Nestle/Poland Spring first made headlines. It was the first time I’d seen liberals act like scared conservatives.

As a reporter you get used to hearing Republican fears — who is going to take their guns, their jobs, their money. It’s part of the modern conservative message: We have something to lose. We need to protect it.

Among liberals, however, the same fear-based rhetoric doesn’t sell. Issues like abortion and gay rights are pitched without resorting to demagoguery. Government, for Democrats, isn’t something to cower from; it’s something that can be controlled.

Republicans, meanwhile, want to starve the beast, kill it if they can.

But I remember that first meeting after the Nestle deal, the activist stances, the sharp words of trepidation that spilled out. I remember the petition campaigns, the heated elections of the Fryeburg Water District, neighbors shouting at neighbors, outside entities called in for logistical and activist support. Replace the word “government” with “corporation” and suddenly liberals become as fearful as conservatives.

But fear provokes knee-jerk reactions, and knee-jerk overreactions, regardless of party. Republicans fear for their guns to the point that they stymie common-sense gun regulations aimed at reducing school shootings and other tragedies. It’s foolish, but it’s impossible to reason with fear.

The same irrationality has been on display locally. But this time it’s a different crowd, a liberal crowd, raising the alarm: Corporations are evil! Our water is not for sale!

But corporations, just like governments, are not evil. These are not autonomous entities, Frankensteinian monsters wielding supreme power. They are run by people. They are governed by laws. They can be tamed.

But not through fear. The fear response Fryeburg Water activists employed was akin to blindfolded swings at a pinata — a lot of fury, but little meaningful contact. Water activists threw everything they had at the Nestle deal, took it to the highest court in Maine, but it is moving forward nonetheless. The fearful blows failed to land.

And why should they? The deal is legal, fitting neatly within the framework set up by the state of Maine. There was an administrative review, then a legal review. Beyond vocal objections, there was nothing to derail the project.

But here’s the thing: the Fryeburg Water activists had a point, and it was a good one. There are tremendous questions about resource extraction. It’s conversation not limited to water: When a resource buried beneath the earth is turned into a salable commodity, who should benefit? Whether water, oil or ore, what is owned by the individual, what is owned collectively, and what is free for the taking? Who owns what? What is the citizenry entitled to when extraction occurs? Should anyone be able to bottle a resource, cart away all they can and pocket the income? Or is something owed for this action?

This is not a new question, but it was also not the one Fryeburg Water activists were asking. Like gun activists thwarting the latest background check legislation, they were shouting in an all-or-nothing fight to stop the deal. They were not calmly looking to put in reasonable safeguards. And in all the shouting, they yelled themselves hoarse.

They had a point; they just failed to aim where it matters.

And where does it matter? In the Legislature, not the courts.

Water is a precious resource. It is a Maine resource, a Mainer’s resource, one currently open to extraction. To change that will require changing the law, which requires working within the bogeyman entity liberals are comfortable with: government.

Activists need to put down the picket signs and trade them for cell phones. They need to push lawmakers to create of a resource fund built on extraction revenues, something similar to Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which is funded through oil sales.

A small tax on water extraction — a half-cent per gallon, or even a quarter-cent — accrues quickly at 603,000 gallons a day. And it would serve as a bulwark against the risk that large scale extraction might someday deplete Fryeburg’s aquifer.

That is the middle road, threading the needle between government and corporations. And it works: In Alaska every resident gets a check, a payout every year, funded by the extraction industry. In 2015, that check was for $2,072 for every resident. The payout is a dividend — the fund itself has grown to more than $53 billion since it launched in 1977.

That money came from oil, not water, and required a change in the state constitution. But extraction is extraction, and bottled water sells at prices similar to gasoline.

Maine doesn’t have oil. Maine has water. It’s a resource, understandably, in which Mainers have a tremendous stake. Currently, the legal and legislative recognition of that stake is minimal, and nothing in the past few years has been done to change that. Activists opposed to Nestle went to battle with empty hands. Instead of looking to arm themselves, they wandered into the fields to get slaughtered. The Maine Supreme Court decision dispatched the last of their hopes.

But Mainers have power. It sits in the tremendous value of bottled water. Residents sit on a commodity, a valuable one. Shouting in the face of its being packaged into profits isn’t going to change things, but taxes do change things. It would be the middle way, accepting that businesses have a right to do business rather than an all out victory against an “evil” corporation. But it would create real value for Mainers rather than just noise.

And should the battle rise again, it would give activists an actual weapon. “The power to tax,” after all, “involves the power to destroy,” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall said nearly 200 years ago.


This column was featured in the Conway Daily Sun newspaper.