What Would Tony Merten Think About Our Situation Today?

Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo 1886
Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three warriors, 1886 (Wikipedia)

On Saturday, March 2, 1996, I was surprised to receive a large, padded envelope in the mail. The return address showed it had been sent from New Mexico by someone named Tony Merten. I didn’t know who that was until I opened the envelope and found a bright red t-shirt with a large black graphic on its front.  The image was a copy of the famous 1886 photo of the hostile Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three of his warriors, taken in Cañon de los Embudos in the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico during their peace talks with U.S. General George Crook. There was also some text surrounding the image on the t-shirt that read, “MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COWBOYS.”

There wasn’t a note in the package, but the t-shirt reminded me that I’d met Tony at an environmental workshop on public lands grazing at Arizona State University a few weeks earlier, the first weekend of February. The event was sponsored by the Arizona Grazing Clearinghouse, a loose consortium of local public lands grazing activists. I was a founding member of that group and had been one of the featured speakers at the workshop. Prior to that event I’d never met or heard of Tony, but he came up to me after I finished my bit and introduced himself. He complimented me on my presentation and also said that he appreciated all the articles I’d written on the topic and was glad to finally meet me in person.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been recognized for my work. In 1993 I’d been  chosen by the National Wildlife Federation as Arizona’s representative to go to Washington, D.C., for several days as part of a campaign to lobby Congress for public lands range reform. And I was one of the local environmentalists selected to sit on the panel with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1994 when he visited Phoenix to discuss his Rangeland Reform ’94  proposals. But it was quite memorable to have a stranger seek you out at a crowded meeting to shake your hand and compliment you in person.

Several days after receiving the t-shirt I was shocked to learn that Tony had been found dead at his remote home in rural southern New Mexico from an apparent suicide. The news story said that Tony had been under suspicion by local authorities for shooting about a dozen cattle grazing on public land near his house, and that he’d recently sent letters to friends implying that he was going to kill himself. One of those folks had notified the Luna County Sheriff’s office and on February 28 they discovered Tony was sitting dead in the greenhouse behind his house with a pistol in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. He’d obviously been dead for several days. I realized that sending me the t-shirt was one of the last things he’d done, but more importantly, I couldn’t understand why he had killed himself. I decided to keep the t-shirt to remember him.

I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t understand why Tony had killed himself. One of his friends, Will Baker, was a writer. He was so puzzled by Tony’s suicide that he published a book about it in 2000 titled Tony and the Cows. The book included more details about the official investigation into Tony’s death. The effort to identify the killer of the cattle began on February 15 when their carcasses were discovered. Investigators visited the few homes in the area later that day to ask if anyone had seen or heard anything, and Tony’s house was one of them. Tony denied any knowledge of the shootings. The investigators found more evidence the next day and it seemed to point to Tony. They stopped at his place to talk to him again, and were soon joined by the rancher who had owned the cattle. Tony became defensive and the conversations ended.

The following day, February 17, Tony penned the letter to his friends wherein he wrote that humans were destroying the Earth’s ecosystem and he saw “no hope” for the planet. “It is better to check out now than sometime later,” he explained. “Tell everyone I loved them all.” Tony may have killed himself later that day, or another day afterwards, but the official date on his death certificate is February 27.

A few days ago I was cleaning out my dresser and at the bottom of one of the drawers I came across the t-shirt Tony had sent me. I noticed, for the first time, that it’s size was extra large, which made me think that Tony had probably worn it, as he had been a large, athletic man.

Finding the t-shirt also renewed my bewilderment about why Tony had killed himself. Baker suggested in his book that Tony had been very lonely because he lived out in the Chihuahuan Desert by himself and hadn’t had a girlfriend in more than a year. But I decided I would use modern information technology to search through public records online for more information about Tony.

I discovered that his given name was George Anthony Merten. He was called Tony because his father’s first name was George too. He was born in 1952 in Los Angeles and grew up in West Covina, a suburb of LA. He had two brothers and three sisters, and was a star wrestler at West Covina’s Edgewood High School. He subsequently wrestled for the University of Redlands, in nearby San Bernardino County. My online research also discovered that Tony was divorced, and had no children.

Tony Merten
Tony Merten, May 1981 (Marce Guerrein)

On April 12, 1980, a  group of 37 people left San Francisco with the intent to backpack across the entire U.S. They traversed 13 states before finishing at Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park on May 27, 1981.  Tony was one of the hikers interviewed there by a newspaper reporter covering the event for the The Baltimore Sun.

“I wish it could go on forever,” he told her. He said that he’d left the U.S. Army, where he’d achieved the rank of lieutenant, in order to join the hike.* “I have achieved autonomy in my life,” he explained, and said that the hike had given him freedom from “boredom, routine, and authority.” Financial solvency was the key, he told her, and he explained he’d achieved it by saving most of his Army pay.

When Tony died he was a leader of the Southern New Mexico Group of the of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, and an active member of many other environmental groups. Perhaps environmental activism had become the most important thing in his life, and when it looked like it was going to be taken away from him, he decided to end it? But part of his decision to die obviously came from his belief that humans were irrevocably destroying the Earth’s ecosystem. So, in honor of Tony, let’s compare the current situation with the way things were back in 1996.

In regards to the specific issue of livestock grazing on Western public lands, today’s situation isn’t great, but it’s better than the bad old days, when public land managers routinely ignored environmental laws in favor of the ranchers. The fees ranchers pay to graze their cattle on public land were never increased to match the rates paid for private grazing land. But due to the steady pressure applied by local grazing activists, accompanied by lawsuits from conservation groups like Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, existing environmental laws were finally applied to many grazing allotment management plans – despite strong opposition from ranchers.

In Arizona, for example, many perennial streams on public land have been protected from livestock damage and forage utilization rates on numerous upland pastures have been limited to conservative levels. Public land managers have also started admitting that some areas, like hot deserts, aren’t suited for grazing. And conservation groups have “bought out” ranchers holding grazing permits for public lands that needed to be permanently retired from grazing.

But these days it’s costing the taxpayers more than ever to subsidize public lands ranchers because millions of dollars are now available to them through Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grants. And well-intentioned but misguided people are still promoting the junk science of Holistic Resource Management (HRM) grazing schemes. Furthermore, there’s a persistent, but small, number of right-wing kooks, like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, that are ideologically opposed to the concept of public lands, and think they should be turned over to the states or local governments.

Overall, however, there have been significant improvements in livestock grazing management on the nation’s public lands, especially those with sensitive resources. This was accomplished by a generation of dedicated Western environmentalists. Some of the major contributors, like Tom Lusting, Joe Feller, and Bob Ohmart, are already gone. Their achievements are significant because livestock grazing is the most pervasive use of our public lands, with about 27,000 permittees grazing livestock on about 270 million acres.

But these improvements in the management of livestock grazing on public lands are threatened, like so much other progress, by the anti-environmental agenda of the Donald Trump administration. Since he took office in 2017 some Forest Service staff in Arizona have arbitrarily classified controversial livestock management decisions as categorically exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public review process. And the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing a national pilot project that turns livestock management over to grazing permittees, without any public input, in order to give ranchers more “flexibility” because they know “better than anyone” what to do.

If Tony were alive today I presume he would want to oppose Trump’s regressive environmental policies. Maybe, however, he would think activism is entirely futile now because there’s no hope for the planet because human caused climate change from the burning of fossil fuels is accelerating in alarming ways that weren’t predicted. I wish he was still here though, so that we could try and convince him to help us fight.

* According to the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives, George Anthony Merten served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 06/24/77 to 06/23/80, achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant.

Tony and the Cows: A True Story from the Range Wars (Paperback)


List Price: $9.95 USD
New From: $8.95 USD In Stock
Used from: $2.74 USD In Stock
buy now

Maricopa County’s Transportation Plan Is Outdated

phoenix arizona freeway
(Wikipedia)

Every workday hundreds of thousands of drivers endure horrible congestion on the freeways and streets of Phoenix while commuting to and from their jobs. A study released in 2015 by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute estimated, for example, that Phoenix commuters were stuck in traffic jams for about 51 hours in 2014, racking up a “congestion cost” of $1,201 per person. This amount was calculated by combining the costs of wasted gas and lost time. And there are obviously other costs associated with this rush hour mess, such as health-damaging stress and unhealthy levels of air pollution.

Considering the magnitude of the problem, you would presume that solving it is the number one priority of the area’s transportation planners. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In fact, it’s somewhat the opposite.

Some of the blame for this awful traffic belongs to the Republican-controlled Arizona State Legislature. In 2004 they passed H.B. 2456, which placed Proposition 400 on the ballot in Maricopa County. It asked county voters if they wanted to extend a half-cent per dollar sales tax until 2025 to fund local transportation improvement projects. But it also dictated how the money had to be used if the measure was approved. It required that the revenues had to be spent as follows:

  • 56.2% on freeways (mostly new) and highways
  • 33.3% on public transit
  • 10.5% on improving existing arterial streets

Maricopa County voters had little choice but to pass Proposition 400 in the fall of 2004 because their only other option was to gut transportation funding. And new freeways needed to be built because rapid real estate development had created traffic that far exceeded the capacity of the existing roadways.

But today there are freeways serving all of Phoenix’s densely populated areas. The only new freeway that can be justified is the South Mountain Freeway, which will significantly reduce congestion and air pollution along Interstate 10 in Phoenix by allowing cross-country commercial truck traffic to bypass the city.

The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) is the regional planning authority for metro Phoenix, and its Transportation Policy Committee (TPC) is in charge of the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) that’s funded by the Proposition 400 revenues. The committee solicits public comments on the RTP, but its hands are somewhat tied by the spending rules included in Proposition 400.

Still, the TPC could at least focus its freeway spending on improving the existing the ones, instead of building new ones. But the current plan still includes millions of dollars for the Estrella Freeway (303L), the I-10 Reliever (SR 30), and the Gateway Freeway (SR 24). All of these new roads are on the outskirts of Phoenix, and will create more traffic congestion by contributing to urban sprawl. In other words, they primarily benefit real estate development – not existing transportation problems. This can be partially explained by the fact that when the legislature created the TPC in 2003, it mandated that six of its 23 members must be local business representatives appointed by the legislature.

The rigid spending rules included in Proposition 400 are one of the reasons that the City of Phoenix submitted Proposition 104 to the voters in 2015. City leaders realized that they’d have to find another source of funding in order to improve mass transit and add alternative transportation options. The city’s voters subsequently approved the proposed 0.7% sales tax increase to help fund a 35 year modern urban transportation plan.

The residents of Tucson also seem to understand that more freeways aren’t necessarily the answer. In 2006 Pima County voters approved a half-cent sales tax through 2026 to fund a regional transportation plan. The plan is administered by the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) of the Pima Association of Governments (PAG). Their plan also spends most of the revenues on freeways (57%), but the money’s intended to improve existing ones, not build new ones.

Phoenix’s serious traffic congestion and air pollution problems cannot be solved by just building more freeways. A ballot initiative to implement a new transportation plan that prioritizes modern mass transit solutions in the urban core should be submitted to the county’s voters. The economic benefits from this strategy would undoubtedly be greater than the existing plan, and it would ensure that existing residents are the primary beneficiaries of local transportation spending. The problem can’t wait until Proposition 400 expires in 2025.

Dakota Access Pipeline Victory May Only Be Temporary

Dakota Access Pipeline
Oil Pipeline Construction (Wikipedia)

Protestors trying to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota were victorious on December 4, 2016, when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers refused to permit the pipeline to carry dirty Canadian tar sands oil beneath Lake Oahe.  The U.S. State Department had previously approved the pipeline with a controversial determination that it wouldn’t substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The protests against the DAPL began in April when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe established the Sacred Stone Camp to accommodate pipeline protestors near the mouth of the Cannonball River, where it empties into the lake. The primary objective of the protestors was to protect the lake from oil spills because it’s the source of the tribe’s water supply.

They used the slogan, “Water is Life.” But their protest soon grew into much more, and became a worldwide focal point for indigenous rights and climate change activists. Thousands of people joined the camp, including representatives from hundreds of tribes, making it the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. About 2,000 veterans of the U.S. military also traveled to the camp intent on forming a human shield to protect the protestors from police attacks.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The Corp of Engineers explained they were denying a pipeline easement beneath the lake so they could conduct a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) in which alternative routes would be explored. An EIS is the most rigorous type of environmental study mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970. NEPA requires federal agencies to complete environmental studies of all their projects, using a public participation process that analyzes the environmental effects of various alternatives.

The Corp of Engineers has a say in whether a pipeline can be permitted beneath Lake Oahe because it has jurisdiction over public waterways and the lake is a reservoir on the Missouri River. The Corp had already completed an environmental assessment (EA) for the DAPL, a less rigorous type of NEPA study that’s typically used for projects with fewer significant issues. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation considered an EA to be inadequate for this project, and asked the Corp to complete an EIS.

The incoming Trump administration, however, will probably try to make the Corp reverse their decision to conduct an EIS, or even worse, work with the Republican-controlled Congress to revoke or eviscerate NEPA. This would have serious consequences on U.S. public lands administered under the multiple use doctrine by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, manages the nation’s 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands – comprising about 193 million acres. The BLM, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages about 30 million acres, including 221 wilderness areas and 23 national monuments. NEPA is the primary mechanism by which Americans participate in the management of these lands because it requires federal land management agencies to conduct publicly reviewed environmental studies for their plans and projects. Without NEPA, the public would have little or no effective input on proposed mining operations, drilling operations, timber cuts, recreational activities, or livestock grazing schemes.

The scope of the potential danger is best illustrated by taking a closer look at the situation in regards to livestock grazing on public lands. The BLM administers more than 21,000 public lands grazing allotments, while the Forest Service has almost 6,000 grazing permittees. Public lands grazing is, by far, the most ubiquitous use of U.S. public lands, occurring on more than 200 million acres, mostly in the West. Subsequently, it’s also the commercial activity that inflicts the most widespread ecological damage on public lands. Even with NEPA, the public typically gets to review and comment on a grazing operation just once every 10 years – the term of a federal grazing permit. Without NEPA, even that modest opportunity would be gone.

But death of NEPA as we know it would do more than threaten the ecological health of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands. As mentioned above, a NEPA study must also be conducted when a proposed project might adversely affect a public waterway, even when the project is located on private land.

These are just some of the examples of the importance of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s often been referred to as the environmental Magna Carta because its stated purpose is to “encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation.” If the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are allowed to neutralize NEPA, the U.S. will have crossed over an ideological threshold to a dark domain where the only thing that really matters is money.

Update

In January of 2017 newly elected President Donald Trump issued an executive order to make the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers reverse their decision under the Obama administration to complete a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) of alternative routes for the DAPL, and then had them issue a permit to allow the pipeline to be drilled beneath Lake Oahe.

On June 14, 2017, federal judge James Boasberg ruled that the Corp of Engineers was, indeed, required to complete an EIS for the DAPL on the Standing Rock reservation. The pipeline, however, had already been built and the judge didn’t order it to be shut down while the EIS is completed.

Page 1 of 5
1 2 3 5