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Adventure : Politics

Postcard From Isla Holbox: (Ir)responsible Whale Shark Ecotourism

Waiting in anticipation, I cling to the side of the boat, flippered feet just barely touching the water’s surface, anxious breath further labored by the snorkel mouthpiece. I grow more and more nervous as fins glide slowly toward the boat—fins of “vegetarians,” but whale shark fins nonetheless. Just as I decide to swing my legs back into the boat and call it crazy, the captain yells “now!” and my hands betray me and let go, dropping me into the ocean.

The salty water rushes up my nose, squeezes in the side of my goggles and plunges down my snorkel tube, but before I can even curse, a gaping mouth emerges from the plankton cloud, threatening to swallow me whole. I freeze, at first in terror but then in awe of the school-bus-sized fish before me. My eyes struggle to take it all in: the spots, the size, the billowing gills, the ensuing remora, and then finally the tail, swaying gracefully back and forth as if waving goodbye.

Just as the shark disappears back into the murky water I remember to swim, and I take off to catch up.

So went my swim with the whale sharks off Isla Holbox, Mexico, last summer.

Labeled “ecotourism”—a logical sum of the tourists plus wild animals in their natural habitat equation—the whale shark tourism industry in Holbox has been a substantial source of income for the island community. The predictable aggregation of whale sharks off the northeast tip of the Yucatan Peninsula from May to September brings an equally reliable stream of paying tourists.

But what benefits the tourism industry has brought to the island have come at a considerable cost. Perhaps living in San Francisco has heightened my eco-anything standards, but I would be hard-pressed to call my whale shark encounter in Mexico “ecotourism,” especially as defined by the International Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” The current state of affairs does not reflect the principles of ecotourism, at best, and at worst, threatens the welfare of both the whale sharks and the small island community.

As part of my graduate research, I spent three months in Holbox interviewing tour operators and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the industry. I discovered that the whale shark tours were not fulfilling their potential to teach and inspire. Tourists were learning little, if anything, about the species, including the threats whale sharks face from overexploitation and climate change, and were thus leaving the island unlikely to join the conservation effort.

Even worse, the activity itself may be doing more harm than good. A large number of tour operators said that neither operators nor tourists generally follow the regulations designed to protect all involved. My tour experience confirmed this, as my guide—one of the few who spoke perfect English—neither mentioned the regulations nor the fact that we were breaking them. For example, I watched my fellow tourists lather themselves with non-biodegradable sunscreen before dropping into the water just next to the feeding fish. We entered four, sometimes five at a time, joining tourists from another boat already swimming with an occupied whale shark. The boats circled the sharks, often passing right over them—and more boats seemed to come from every possible destination in the Mayan Riviera (it isn’t just Holbox that operates tours).

Equally troubling are the unintended consequences of the whale shark tourism industry for the community of Holbox. Unequal distribution of profits has divided a once united community. Rivalry is pervasive and exists between little operators and big, Holboxeños and operators from Isla Mujeres, and even nationals and non-nationals. One man, a resident of over 70 years, told me that he has watched money turn his formerly “humble” and “kind” neighbors into those who are “corrupt” and “mean.”

To a passing tourist, this hostility is far from noticeable, and my intention is not to deter anyone from visiting what is truly a magical place, nor from having the unbelievable experience of swimming with whale sharks in their natural environment. In fact, there are steps already being taken to remedy the industry’s problems and many individuals are passionately devoting their time to this effort.

But until all is perfect on the Yucatan front, tourists must do their part to be a responsible addition to the ecotourism equation. How?

First, do your homework before you travel. There are some excellent websites devoted to responsible tourism that can guide everything from your choice of country to which operators to employ. (International Ecotourism Society, Right Tourism, SPANA and Turismo Responsable will get you started.) For instance, there is a gold standard when it comes to swimming with whale sharks—a recent study has shown that the tourism industry in the Ningaloo Reef, Australia, has had no cumulative, negative impacts on the fish. For the cost of airfare and a $345 ticket you can cross the activity off of your bucket list with a clear conscience.

Second, don't let the phrase “when in Rome” go to your head. Do only what you would do in your own town, state, or country. If your local park tells you not to feed wildlife, assume the rule applies to wildlife everywhere.

Finally, if there are no operators or signs to tell you how to behave responsibly, trust your instincts. One of the tourists on my boat came back from her first turn in the water with the whale sharks and said she had tried, but failed, to touch one. When asked by another tourist if she was going to try again she said she didn’t think so, that is just didn’t seem right for some reason. Bravo!

Ecotourism is certainly a welcome and growing alternative to less responsible forms of tourism. Yet with an ever-increasing population, maintaining the principles of ecotourism will prove challenging, just as it has with the global whale shark tourism industry. There will need to be a balance between saturation and exclusivity, and the answer will lie in the tour subject’s response. Tourists, above all, must do their part to recognize and respect this response.

Susan Getty is a recent graduate of the Masters of Science in Animals and Public Policy Program at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

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The Apolitical European Tour That's Only for Conservatives

Ken Chase used to be in politics—conservative politics, he’ll say, definitely conservative politics—and he’s still in politics, just not as deep. (He ran against Ted Kennedy for one of Massachusetts’ Senate seats in 2006.) After the election of a certain person, who Ken likes to describe with three names, as President of the United States, Ken was forced to close down his Boston-area, for-profit, foreign-language school for American children. So, he got into the touring business. No, the conservative touring business—as in, he runs a company that takes conservative-identifying Americans on luxury tours of Europe. At least, the company is called Conservative Tours, and it bills itself as “the nation's leader in luxury tours to Europe for Conservatives,” but the tours themselves aren’t conservative. Or something. I don’t know, but I spoke with Ken soon after the inauguration. He’ll explain.

How and when did you come up with the idea for Conservative Tours?
I came up with the idea after Obama came in, and because I work in politics and I’ve been active in international matters for the better part of 30 years. The how was very simply: on my own. I basically decided I was going to combine the two domains in which I resided in some professional matter.

How’s the company doing, then?
It’s a very difficult economy for a luxury product like this, but we’ve been in the green since we’ve started. So now we’re at the point where we’re expanding at a respectable clip and that again makes us rather pleased because hopefully we’re gonna come out of the—I was doing my weekly radio interview this morning on national politics. I said the larger picture here is that, just by force of luck and time and economic gravity, I think when Obama leaves, we’re going to have to be doing very well four years from now, so he’s probably going to ride off into the sunset, claiming to be a worker of wonders.

So, you say the company started in 2008. Is that timing—
I ran an after-school language school. We taught French and Spanish using native speakers to American children in the Greater Boston Area. It was a for-profit enterprise. When he got in, that was when, of course, I don’t know how much you remember, Lehman Brothers collapsed. And it was great turmoil. Then, he got elected. 

In that interregnum between getting elected and taking office, he was talking about the necessity to pass his stimulus bill, saying that if it were not passed, millions of people would lose their jobs. Of course, he didn’t understand at the time, but when you’re in that position, the elected-but-not-yet-installed president of this country, when you make a statement like that, you frighten people. That December and January, instead of the moms calling me up and saying, “I wanna sign Johnny and Sally up for the second or third trimester,” they would be saying, “I can’t sign them up again,” or “I’ve got three kids and I’m only gonna sign up two.” I knew the writing was on the wall. I decided to close that school, but I tried my best to honor my commitment to the teachers.

So, you’re saying it’s not just a coincidence that you started this right around when the president was elected?
When he told people they might lose their jobs, the discretionary purchases are the first things to go, and that’s what happened with me. So, that’s why I saw my business take a sharp hit when he started beating the drums on the stimulus package, back in the winter of 2008. That’s what happened, and my business model started to dry up, and I just put the finishing touches on it and said “I can’t make a living at this rate,” so that was it. Then I started the new company around January of ‘09.

There are obviously hundreds, if not thousands, of tour operators in America. I don’t know if we created this strategy, but I’ve had more than a handful of people over the years tell me, “Gosh, I wish I thought of it,” but yes. We ask people to make a consumer-luxury purchase based, in part, on their political affiliation.

Is there a certain demographic of people?
Yeah, the demographic is conservatives: Americans who are of a politically conservative bent.

A certain age group?
Well, they’re luxury tours, so generally speaking, less the 20-something crowd and more adults who are working or have a certain amount of discretionary income.

What makes the tours conservative?
The tour itself is not political. The tour itself is not conservative, except insofar as some of the destinations we choose have particular appeal to conservatives, and conversely would not have appeal to leftists and liberals. Such as the D-Day beaches.

Liberals wouldn’t be interested in the D-Day beaches?
In politics, when you’re talking nationally, we talk in terms of numbers. As a rule, conservatives have an admiration for our military. As a rule, liberals do not or are indifferent. Therefore, the average liberal has no interest in going to the D-Day beaches. You know, Barack Obama went to the D-Day beaches, but we all know who Barack Obama’s mentor in politics was. It was Bill Ayers. So I don’t think you need a degree in psychology or political science to know that Barack Hussein Obama had no interest in the D-Day beaches until he found himself sitting in the Oval Office. If I wanted to do a tour for liberals, I’d say, “Let’s go to Cannes.” That’s not the kind of destination that conservatives are attracted to.

There’s a note on your site where you tell travelers that, on your tour, you don’t have to worry about getting stuck on a train next to a liberal for three hours. Is that the main appeal of this, then: being with like-minded people?
Well, there are many ways the product appeals to Americans. As I said, the tour is not political. The tour is not conservative. The company is conservative insofar as the president is conservative, insofar as the president is active in conservative politics. The tours, if you read the itinerary, are about touring. The tours are not about political rallies. 

However, as it’s indicated—see, that’s part of what it means to be a conservative: we don’t mind telling you what we really think. We don’t have to hide what we’re really up to because we’re conservatives. So, we don’t say we’re about uniting people, but then divide people when we get into office. That’s why we tell people up front, “Here’s the tour, but if you go on the tour you should know that we solicit participation on our tours from people who are like-minded politically.” Having said that, again, it’s up to people to choose—we’re very much pro-choice on that score. We believe in associating with people whom you’d like to associate and not having anybody telling you or compelling you.

That’s another good thing about being Republicans: when it comes to freedom of choice on that matter, we’re very pro-choice. When people come on the tour, I think everybody on the tour knows they’re in the presence of other conservatives, so it makes for a very cohesive and friendly group. See, the difference with conservatives is: they’re traditional. They’re Americans who are easy going, affable, nice, better with their time and money, and of good humor. So, they’re kind of the opposite of the Cambridge democrat.

How would you describe one of them?
It’s the people I live with. I live in Cambridge every day, so I think I have a certain familiarity with Cambridge democrats.

You say the actual touring is not political, but at the same time, the events are catered to a certain type of person, who you’re labeling as a conservative, who you’re trying to bring to your tour. So, it seems hard to ever really remove the political aspect from it.
Nobody’s asking you to remove anything. We market to conservatives only. Once, I violated my own policy and I went on a non-conservative radio station, and it was a marketing disaster. The two bread and butter tours of the corporation are Paris with the D-Day beaches and when we do the grand event in Italy we visit the American military cemetery just outside of Florence. If I go into Cambridge or San Francisco or Madison, Wisconsin, or Austin and say, “Tell me what you know about Montecassino, Anzio, Salerno,” they’d look at me as if I had three heads. The liberal is like Barack Hussein Obama, that’s how they think. Like Bill Ayers. You know what they think of the military. The last thing you’re going to do is see people like that saying, “I want to pay money to go Salerno.” The converse is true of conservatives. They’re captivated by this because they’re conservatives.

At the same time—
How old are you? 

24.
Where did you go to school?

Holy Cross.
And where are you from? 

New York.
Where? New York’s a big state.

Long Island.
OK.

Isn’t part of traveling to another country about experiencing things you wouldn’t necessarily experience at home and doing so with people you wouldn’t necessarily be with at home?
It’s important not to be narrow-minded. It’s important to respect diverse points of view. See, that’s one of the good things about being conservative. Conservatives are generally easy-going. Cambridge democrats are not easy going. They’re generally angry, generally have a chip on their shoulder. If you talk to them about a subject, virtually any subject other than “How’s your coffee?” if you don’t agree with their viewpoint, they tend to become very angry, agitated.

Why would you want to spend four- or five-thousand dollars on a luxury tour only to be with somebody of that temperament? I wanna spend four- or five-thousand dollars on a luxury tour to be with somebody who’s pleasant. In other words, if I asked somebody in Cambridge, “Can you tell me the accomplishments and the failings of George W. Bush?” they would say: “I hated George W. Bush, he’s evil. He’s a toady for the oil companies from Texas. I wish he was dead.” I don’t want to risk five-thousand dollars of my hard-earned money only to find out the guy across from me is that kind of person. I wanna invest that kind of money—because I’m a hardworking person—to be with somebody who’s nice, who’s pleasant, who’s agreeable, who has a sense of humor. That’s part of the joy of being with conservatives: everybody’s normal. They’re not angry, they’re not bitter, they’re just pleasant. They’re just the traditional Americans. It’s the difference between normal people and Cambridge people.

Aren’t you just grouping all Cambridge liberals into this one type of person and saying that they don’t fit any of the characteristics you listed of the people who go on your trips? That seems like the opposite of open-minded.
It has nothing to do with open-mindedness. It’s either inaccurate or it’s accurate. I’m a little older than you and I have 30 years experience working politics in America, so the question has nothing to do with being open-minded. The issue is: Are you tolerant or intolerant? I placed adjectives of the nature on conservatives and conversely of Cambridge democrats. That has nothing to do with being open-minded.

What you’re getting at is tolerance. See, if you’re a Cambridge democrat, you’re angry, you don’t like people, you hate people who don’t think as you do. Tolerance is, “We have a disagreement on that, but I’ll respect your point of view, and I’ll treat you with equanimity.” That’s accepting of diversity. Cambridge democrats don’t do that. That’s why they say: “I hate Dick Cheney. I hate George Bush.” They say things like “George Bush hates blacks,” because they’re so narrow-minded they don’t get out very often. But when you travel as I do, and you spend 30 years living abroad, off and on as I have, you’ll understand these things a little bit better.

Part of being a conservative in my particular role is to fight the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of the Cambridge democrat. We need to teach them to be tolerant, not to hate people who have different opinions than theirs. If you say, “I favor homosexual marriage,” and Ryan says, “Well, I’m against homosexual marriage,” what does a Cambridge democrat say to you? Does he respect your point of view or does he call you a homophobe?

People are different. How can you expect the same answer every time?
No, no, no. You’ve gotta answer my question.

I’m not comfortable reducing a group of people into one stereotype.
Ryan, you can’t run away from a question. When you call me to have an interview, you can’t pretend to be afraid—event though you are—when I ask you a very simple question. Now, you can’t pretend to be dumb. I don’t think you’re dumb. So, you can’t start now. You don’t have anything to be afraid of. Nobody’s going to throw a net over you and dump you in a lake. Now, you answer my question.

I’m not sure it’s fair to talk about any group of people like that. I don’t think that’s me being dumb.
No, you’re pretending to be dumb because you don’t want to answer the question because you know what the answer is.

Well, let’s just go with the answer you’re expecting then.
The answer I’m expecting is the answer of an informed person. But if you’re not informed, you can’t give an answer. That’s why you can’t start to play dumb. You can’t fool me, Ryan. I’ve been working around the world in politics. I know a little bit about these issues, OK? This is always the fall back. I don’t wanna answer that question—because you know what answering the question is going to reveal. It’s going to reveal that you’re proving my point.

The essence of a Cambridge democrat, and we generalize here for the sake of discussion—we don’t need an anecdote about the one in a million who’s open-minded. We’re dealing with statistics; we’re dealing with politics on a national level. So, you’re proving my point that the essence of the Cambridge democrat is to be intolerant. And that’s easy; it’s what ignorant people do. Being tolerant is a challenge. That’s why it’s great to be with conservatives: you can’t just be angry like liberals. You can’t just hate like a lot of liberals. You actually have to state your position and explain why it’s a smart position. When you’re with conservatives, they don’t yell and scream; they make a point and then they give you the rationale. Liberals say: “Oh you don’t agree with abortion on demand? Well that’s because you hate women.” Stupid people act that way, but the nice thing about going on tour with conservatives is you don’t get people like that. You get people who say, “I’m pro-choice or pro-life because,” and then they say their rationale. They’re thoughtful people, they’re not angry people. Who on Earth wants to be next to a Cambridge democrat when he says something outrageous and intolerant of divergent points of view? There’s a lovely cohesion on our events. Everybody’s happy, everybody’s nice, everybody laughs, and everybody jokes. And that’s a good thing, Ryan.

I would like you to go on one of our events. Why don’t you go on one of our events with a group of conservatives from Pittsburgh in March. I’ll bet you this: If you don’t come away thinking they’re the nicest tour group you could ever imagine, then your tour is free.

I don’t doubt that, and I’m sure you’re right. And I’m sure if there was a “liberal” tour—or whatever you want to call it—it would be the same, which you obviously wouldn’t agree with, but that’s fine. Anyway, last question: With the inauguration just passing, do you still stand by your characterization of the president as “Our Dear Leader?”
In 2003, I think the year was, George Bush declared Iran as part of the axis of evil. In 2008, the very intelligent Barack Obama went before the cameras, and he was asked “Would you meet unconditionally with the leader of Iran?” His said, “Yes.” Because the question was so fraught with political danger, the reporter wanted to give Obama a chance to back out, so he said, again, “Knowing what you know now, would you meet with Ahmadinejad unconditionally?” He said, “Yes.” 

Now you don’t know what that means because you inhabited a university campus, and I’m sure Holy Cross is like virtually every other college campus in America: it’s 98 percent populated by teachers who write checks to the DNC. Let me translate: “George Bush is a southerner. He speaks with a drawl. Therefore, I’m a liberal. I have a Harvard degree. He’s stupid and I’m smart because I’m a liberal. George Bush has screwed up the planet. Everybody hates us around the planet because he’s stupid. And because he’s stupid, he’s lacking the finesse, the intelligence, the sophistication, and the diplomacy. Therefore, countries like Iran hate us. I’m Barack Hussein Obama. Get rid of a stupid George Bush and put in the smart socialist like me and Iran will like us. We’ll stall the Iran problem. All we’re lacking is someone intelligent and diplomatic and sophisticated like me from the left.”

That’s the translation of that interchange. Now how do I know that? I’m a little bit deeper than the average politician.

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A Liberal With a Gun

Dan Baum was “a pudgy, overmothered cherub” of five when he first shot a gun, he writes in his new book Gun Guys: A Road Trip. At summer camp, an adult showed him how to use a Mossberg .22-caliber rifle. “I cannot remember the names of my neighbors’ grown children or the seventh dwarf,” Baum writes, “but to this day I can summon every detail of that rifle and its metallic, smoky, chemical aroma.”

Despite the fact that he came from a gun-averse Democratic household, Baum fell hard for guns, and he’s been trying to figure out why ever since. In every other respect, the 56-year-old journalist is as liberal as they come—a believer in “unions, gay rights, progressive taxation, the United Nations,” and President Obama. A few years ago, having already written books about drug laws, the Coors brewing dynasty, and the people of New Orleans, Baum decided that it was finally time to tackle what he calls “my gun thing.” He worried that gun guys wouldn’t accept him if he didn’t look the part, so he signed up for an NRA-approved concealed-carry class and got a permit to carry a handgun. Then he shoved a .38-caliber Colt Detective Special in his waistband and set off on a cross-country road trip, stopping at gun stores along the way in search of “the essential quality” about guns that, “like anchovies on pizza, impassioned some people and disgusted others.”

The book is sure to anger people on both sides of the chasm. Baum criticizes the NRA, pokes fun at his gung-ho firearm instructors, and argues that anyone who wants to carry a gun needs “much much much much better training” than what’s commonly offered. On the other hand, he treats people who want tighter gun laws with suspicion, he unapologetically defends the cultural resentments of straight, white men, and he ignores the phenomenon of mass shootings, at least in the body of the book, addressing them in a postscript written after James Holmes killed 12 and wounded 58 in Aurora, Colorado, and Adam Lanza murdered 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Baum is a quirky writer with an original point of view, and with Gun Guys he’s made an important addition to the literature. A clear, stylish writer, he has a knack for getting gun enthusiasts to open up—their stories are compelling and sometimes surprising. Here, Baum talks to Jason Fagone about the appeal of the AR-15 rifle, the link between gun love and social class, and how carrying a firearm changes the way you look at the world.

What I like about your book is that you write frankly about guns as seductive objects. They work on the psyche in ways that aren’t talked about a lot.
I’ve always wanted to get at why we love these things so much. I live in this liberal, Democratic, gun-hating world, and I like guns, so I’m often in the position of feeling like a closeted gay man. We wouldn’t say terrible things about black people or gay people, but it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about testosterone-poisoned gun freaks. Meanwhile, the NRA—which I hate, and which doesn’t represent me—is making all kinds of assumptions about gun people, and the left is, too. So I said, I’m going to go out and talk to gun guys.

You’re an unlikely narrator for a book about gun love.
I don’t look like a gun guy. I’m a Jewish boy from the suburbs of New York. Nobody had guns there. It was a million miles from gun culture. Because I don’t look like a gun guy, I got a concealed-carry permit. It was my entrée. If you carry a gun, you’re one of them. But I also wanted to see what it was like to carry a gun.

I like your description of how carrying a gun changes the way you look at the world.
Changes everything.

You say it puts you in a state of mind called Condition Yellow. What is that?
Condition Yellow is.... I don’t want to say a state of hyper-vigilance, because that makes it sound bad. But it is a heightened awareness of everything that is going on around you. It is an awesome responsibility to walk around with a gun. You’ve really got to have your shit together when you’re wearing a gun. It really tightens the laces on your life in kind of an appealing way. That’s Condition Yellow. When I wasn’t wearing the gun—when I was visiting a state that did not honor my concealed-carry permit, or when I knew I would be drinking—I would go back to Condition White, which is a state of obliviousness about your surroundings. And I would realize how much I liked Condition White. That’s where you daydream, and it’s where art happens, and I like that, too. Ultimately, I decided to stop wearing the gun, because I got burned out on Condition Yellow. I think it’s left me in a kind of Condition Pale Yellow.

In the end, it seemed like you doubted your ability to actually stop a violent crime. You weren’t enough of a warrior.
Yeah.

I don’t want to spoil it, but you go through a very intense kind of shooting test involving a sophisticated machine used to train police.
And after I go through that, I get a better gun. For a while, I go further into the gun carrying.

You get a Glock.
And I don’t like it. There’s no reason to like a Glock. I like old guns. The Glock is just an utterly charmless man killer. That’s all it’s good for. It has no aesthetic value. But it really shoots well, and it holds a lot of bullets. When the Aurora shooting happened, in the movie theater, I had stopped carrying my gun by then, but what went through my mind is what I’m sure went through a lot of gun guys’ minds, and that was: Damn, I wish I had been in that theater with my gun.

Do you think you could have stopped James Holmes?
I don’t know. I’d like to think I’d have kept my head, waited for a clear shot, and taken it. And I believe that whether I hit him or not, I’d have upset his rhythm. Again and again these mass shooters kill themselves when the police show up. (Though not Holmes. He simply seemed to run out of enthusiasm.) Adam Lanza, Seung Hui-Cho, the Columbine shooters.... They don’t want a gunfight. They want to kill a lot of people. So I like to think that, if Holmes had seen a muzzle flash, it would have at least made him pause. In any case, I don’t see that things could have been worse with someone shooting at him.

You talked to a lot of angry gun guys on your trip. What were they so upset about?
The bulge of the gun-guy demographic is middle-aged, straight, white men who have not finished college. That’s a demographic that has really suffered in the past 30 years. They haven’t had a wage increase since 1978.

You write that these guys have had “their livers pecked out while women, immigrants, blacks, and gays all seemed to have become groovier, sexier, and more dynamic players in American culture.” Do guns make these guys feel powerful and important again?
There are two things. One is: the NRA comes along and says to them, “You’re angry because the liberals want to take away your guns.” The other is: living alongside firearms is a big self-esteem builder. You feel good about being somebody who is capable and clear-headed and skilled enough to be around these incredibly dangerous things, and maybe even carry one, without anyone getting hurt.

There’s an interesting scene when you visit the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. You’re getting a tour from a guy in the NRA’s education and training division, and you prod him to tell you why he loves guns—and he gives you a very direct answer.
When you talk to gun guys, they talk about how, oh, guns are like cameras—they’re these beautiful devices. But there’s no denying that there’s a death element to gun fascination, and I really hadn’t heard that from anyone. So I go to the NRA toward the end of the book. I find this one guy who I like. And I say, Come on, man, this is all about death. I thought he was going to deny it, but he goes, Yeah, this is about death. And it is. I mean, to be a gun guy—not just to carry a gun but to be around guns—it’s the same kind of thing that skydivers have, or free climbers. You’re getting this little contact high from the Grim Reaper.

Let’s talk about the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, which, as you know, is the type of weapon Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook and Holmes used in Aurora. You start the book with it. The first time you go to a gun range, you take a rifle made in 1900 for the Spanish-American War, and you find that you’re the only guy who has an old gun. Everyone else is shooting black AR-15’s. What did you discover about the appeal of this weapon?
It’s portrayed now, post–Sandy Hook, as some kind of bizarre outlier to the gun world. Who needs an AR-15? Why would any hunter or any decent person want an AR-15? It turns out—and this was a surprise to me—that the AR-15 is the whole gun business. It’s all anyone wants anymore. It’s all you see at rifle ranges. Half the guns in a gun store will be AR-15’s. Why? Because they are incredible rifles. There’s very little recoil, thanks to a big spring in the butt. It’s very accurate. But more than that, it’s modular. It all comes apart, so you can endlessly swap out pieces. New stock, new pistol grip. You can even change the caliber, in seconds, just by snapping pieces on and off. There is a bottomless universe of shit you can buy for your gun.

You write that attempts to ban the AR-15 are “stupid.”
Yes.

But if I wanted to ban the AR-15, I’d use your reporting to make the case. You write: “My own rifle punched me like a prize-fighter, and to fire a second shot, I had to throw a heavy bolt lever up and back, forward and down. With this gun, I barely brushed the trigger, as gently as flicking crumbs off a tablecloth. ... It was effortless, like shooting a ray gun. ... Imagine a guitar that made you play like Eric Clapton.” It really does seem like a fundamentally distinct class of weapon. Why is it stupid to want to ban something that puts tremendous lethal firepower in the hands of inexperienced shooters?
For one thing, there are gazillions of them already out there, so unless we do a house-to-house search, we’re still going to be living with these things. As for why anyone needs an AR-15, that’s not a question we ask in any other context. We don’t ask why anybody needs an eight-cylinder SUV or a 6,000-square-foot house. And I would argue that the SUV and the house may be limiting our human future more than the AR-15. If you look at FBI statistics, these guns are used in about 3 percent of killings a year. If you really want to do something to make us safer, ban handguns. Which I think would be nuts.

What about a ban on high-capacity magazines?
I’ll send you a YouTube video of a guy changing a magazine in a second. One second.

Sure, but Jared Loughner—the Tucson shooter who killed six and injured 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—fired 31 bullets in 15 seconds from his Glock. There were 33 rounds. Lanza fired about 150 rounds from his AR-15 in just a few minutes. Police got to the Aurora movie theater within 90 seconds of the start of Holmes’ rampage, and by that time he’d already killed 12 and wounded 58. It seems like introducing even a minor inconvenience could save lives.
My first book was about the politics of the drug war, so I have an instinctive prejudice against bans. I think banning things that lots of people want is bad policy. It produces the opposite effect of what you want. It’s caustic to people’s respect for the rule of law. And it’s undemocratic. People who talk about banning the AR-15 and banning large-capacity magazines are rooted in unreality. A lot of this impulse to ban is seizing an opportunity to stick it to the other tribe, and I really hate that.

One issue I have is that, when you talk about the flip side of gun love, your sensitivity and nuance go out the window. You seem to think that people who don’t love guns are just snobs. I kept waiting for a moment when you’d acknowledge that those who want tighter gun laws might be genuinely concerned about gun violence. But that moment never came. You put “epidemic of gun violence” in scare quotes, like it’s something that’s been invented to tar gun owners.
Violent crime is half of what it was 20 years ago. We have done an incredible job in this country. It is an unalloyed piece of good news. It is a public-policy victory. And I devote three of 18 chapters to the dark side of guns—a young man murdered, another disabled, and a chapter about a former gangbanger who killed a man.

We’ve still got the highest rate of gun homicide in the advanced world. We still have 30,000 firearm-related deaths every year. Five hundred murders last year in Chicago, and 331 in the city where I report, Philadelphia.
Chicago, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the country.

Yeah, but as David Frum has pointed out, there’s not a wall around Chicago. Guns can come into Chicago from other places. There are other problems. Suicide. Teens who try to kill themselves with guns tend to succeed, as you point out in the book.
That is bad. That is definitely bad. Look. Going back to your question about the motives of the gun-control people—

I can tell you that, personally, the reason I don’t want to be around guns isn’t that I have some pathological aversion to them as objects. It’s that I think they’re dangerous. I have a four-year-old daughter. If I had been out with her and had seen you open-carrying your handgun in Whole Foods, my impulse would have been to come up and tap you on the shoulder and ask what the fuck was wrong with you.
It’s well and good to say I have a four-year-old daughter and I live in Philadelphia and I don’t want anything to do with guns. But, forgive me, it’s a little bit like saying I don’t want anything to do with gravity. I mean, the country is full of guns. We can’t do away with air crashes by repealing gravity. The gun-control side—and this has been especially true since Sandy Hook—has been depending on an emotional argument. You just made, really, an emotional argument.

I could cite statistics. Studies show that more guns equal more homicides, across all sorts of metrics.
Private firearm ownership per capita in the United States has gone up tremendously in the past 20 years. Gun laws have generally gotten looser everywhere in the past 20 years. And gun murders have fallen by half. So I don’t know why you say more guns equals more homicide.

Those are the findings of David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Places with more guns have higher rates of homicide.
David Hemenway, frankly, is a partisan on this issue. As is Gary Kleck on the other side. These guys have an agenda. I don’t trust them. But it’s Hemenway who has found that guns are used to save lives 80,000 times a year, which means guns may be saving more lives than they’re taking.

In one chapter, you quote a lawyer at the Goldwater Institute who makes an argument I’ve seen a lot: that the Second Amendment exists in part to let citizens arm themselves as a “bulwark against tyranny.” He’s talking about doing battle against the U.S. government if necessary. Do you think that’s a valid point?
I don’t believe we’ll get to the place where we have to take our rifles out of the closet and overthrow a tyrannical government. But I do think that the widespread private ownership of guns bespeaks a relationship between the government and the people that is unique and that I like. I’ve lived and worked all over the world, in countries where the only people with guns are the military and the police. I don’t like it. And I’m not sure most Americans would like it.

Your other views are so progressive, though. To be a progressive, you have to believe that the world can be improved. But it seems like, at the heart of so much Second Amendment absolutism, there is this dark vision of inevitable, lawless decay. Like: The world is screwed. You may as well start burying AR-15’s in your yard.
No, no, no. It’s not that.

Am I misunderstanding?
Yeah, I think you are. There are definitely a lot of gun guys who feel that way. You know, when they make the argument—like Aaron Zelman’s genocide argument, that gun control precedes genocide—

Aaron Zelman. This is the late head of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. He wrote a book called Death by “Gun Control,” arguing that gun laws led not just to the Holocaust but also to eight other genocides.
I was born in 1956. You were probably born in the '70s? We’ve lived in a pretty good era in the United States. But in our lifetimes, people wearing Gap and Benetton clothing were lined up in front of pits and shot for being who they were. This happened during our adulthood. And these were not savage Africans. These were Europeans! These were white folks, wearing the kinds of clothes we wear, and carrying the kinds of consumer products we carry. They were lined up and shot, for being who they were, in Bosnia.

Sorry: savage Africans?
Well, you know, when it happens in Africa, I think we all have a tendency to go, well, it’s Africa, right? But this happened in Europe. We’re not talking about the Nazis. We’re talking about the '90s. So I cannot completely dismiss Zelman’s argument. I also lost half my family in the Holocaust. And I do kind of share his sense of wonder that the vanguard of the gun-control movement in this country are the Jews.

You talk about being a progressive. I’ve been appalled at how my fellow quote-unquote progressives have this sudden, newfound adoration of police power. I mean, hello? We used to oppose excessive police power. We used to be all about civil liberties. And now you’ve got “progressives” talking about confiscating people’s property.

Who’s talking about confiscation?
Andrew Cuomo. Under New York’s SAFE Act—passed under “emergency” conditions, so that legislators got only 20 minutes to read the bill—assault rifles and magazines have to be taken out of the state in 90 days or surrendered. A similar law is being debated in Missouri and Colorado.

You say it’s an admirable thing that we give ordinary people this level of trust with firearms. And many of the people you meet in your reporting are model gun owners. But what about all the guys on a site like AR15.com, who post psychopathic rants about the United Nations?
Oh yeah, they’re scary.

And what about the kid you encounter who’s shooting into a rock face and the bullet’s pinging back at him? Doesn’t the easy availability of guns in America ensure that many people who shouldn’t have them will have them? You don’t engage with these people.
I take exception to the idea that all the people in my book are responsible gun owners. I really did try to represent the knuckleheads and the malevolent, too. Brandon Franklin, a 22-year-old I knew from my reporting days in New Orleans, gets murdered. And I interviewed a guy who killed a guy. A gangbanger. So they’re not all good guys, for one thing. But as the guy at the Goldwater Institute put it: we are a big, messy, polyglot country with a tremendous amount of freedom. A certain amount of bad shit is going to happen.

You argue that if Democrats try to tighten gun laws, they’ll only alienate voters who could help them accomplish other things that you believe in—action on climate change, income inequality, and immigration reform. Newtown seems to have changed this calculus, though. Has it changed your views about gun control?
No. I think Joe Biden, whom I love, is making mistakes here. The gun-control side is underestimating the force of the reaction they’re in for.

Mass shootings only appear tangentially in the body of your book. The Fort Hood shooting, Virginia Tech, the Wisconsin Sikh temple—they come up in the postscript, but that was written after Aurora and Newtown. Why didn’t you feel the need to address them?
They’re very rare. They seem like they happen all the time, but a statistically insignificant number of Americans die in these events.

Nine hundred people in the past seven years, according to USA Today.
Yeah. Which is a lot of people. No question. I and probably a lot of other gun guys believe that if somebody wants to do it, they’re going to do it. We can tinker with the gun laws all we want, but Timothy McVeigh did not use a gun, and he killed more people in his single act than any of these shooters.

You seem to despair in the book about the two sides coming to any kind of agreement. They’re too far apart.
Yes, and if I’m harder on the progressives, it’s because I think they’re largely responsible for this. It’s because of their sanctimonious, self-congratulatory sense of superiority to the gun people, and their desire to win a tribal point by smashing the idol of their opposing worldview. They drive gun guys into a defensive crouch.

You’ve laid out what progressives can do: listen to gun guys, respect their views. What can gun guys do?
Gun guys have to lock up their fucking guns. Much of the bad shit that happens in this country with guns happens because some honest person who bought a gun legally in a gun store left it unlocked. Thieves get them, and then they go into criminal hands. Kids find them, depressed teenagers find them. Adam Lanza found his mother’s guns unlocked. I think gun guys need to pull up their big-boy pants. And if they won’t, then we need to have laws that impose criminal penalties if something bad happens with your gun.

You also support universal background checks.
And putting them online, where we can all get them.

Did the road trip change any of your other, non-gun-related political views? Are you still an Obama supporter?
Oh yeah. I’m no less a tax-and-spend liberal Democrat. I’m a big Obama guy. But I must say, I do understand now the sense that we are all overmanaged and underrespected as citizens. I think we have lost a tremendous amount of individual agency in this country. The abhorrence on the part of the left that an armed citizen might have been useful at Sandy Hook or Aurora seems rooted in this instinctive liberal horror that any individual could be vigorous and capable and independent-minded enough to do something that dramatic. To actually intervene in a situation like that. And as somebody who instinctively cares more about the collective than the individual, I think we’re misguided there. I think the collective is better served by vigorous and capable individuals in the same way a machine works better with higher-quality parts.

You’re trying to speak to both sides in a debate where there really aren’t a lot of centrists. There’s a gap in the middle.
People will hate this book on both sides. When I think about what The New York Times is going to do, if they review it at all, I pucker up. I mean, Terry Gross isn’t going to have me on. We’ll see. Both sides are the fucking Taliban. It’ll either be a huge hit or I’ll go get a job.

Jason Fagone is a contributing editor at Wired and Philadelphia. His book Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America will be published by Crown in November.

Dan Baum has been a staff writer for
The New Yorker and has written for Harper’s, Wired, and many other magazines. He’s the author of several books, including Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans.

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The Sequester of the National Parks

'Twas the eve of sequester and all through the House.... Just kidding, that’s not how this story goes. There are no presents at the end. Almost every section of the government will be forced to make some cuts in employment, services, and resources with the impending federal sequestration of funds. While most of the focus has been on the United States’ massive defense budget and furloughs taking place at the Pentagon, the National Parks are bracing for a lean future, too.

According to a report released by the White House this past September, the National Park Service, with the implementation of the sequester, would have about 8.2 percent of its annual budget ($218 million), cut from its operating resources on March 1, 2013. It’s February 28, and with no sign of an end to the standoff between Democrats and Republicans, the parks are about to take a big hit.

The director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis, issued a memo to all employees on February 26 saying that officially the NPS would take a five percent reduction in funds, or about $134 million for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR) released a copy of the memo, which also discussed the effects of the sequester on employment by the NPS.

“Across the Department of the Interior,” Jarvis said in his memo, “it is expected that thousands of permanent employees will be furloughed for up to 22 work days.” However, the NPS largely relies on seasonal employees to help meet its demands for the spring and summer months. In the case of seasonal employees, many won’t have to worry about a furlough because they won’t be hired back. Park superintendents have been advised to delay hiring new employees and in some cases might hire none at all.

“Our seasonal workforce is the ‘bench’ we turn to when fires break out, search and rescue operations are underway, and every other collateral duty in the world needs doing,” Jarvis said. Crews that would normally be getting ready to plow roads for the spring at Yellow Stone National Park are already on hold, which could delay the opening of the park for up to a month.

While Jarvis is working to mitigate the effects of the sequester, park superintendents have very little room to maneuver, according to Jeffrey Olson, a spokesperson for the NPS. Olson said that almost 90 percent of a superintendent’s operating budget is wrapped up in maintenance costs and salaries. Costs include fuel for vehicles, toilet paper for bathrooms, and money to fix buildings and trails. Most of that money has already been spent for the year. Now, the superintendents must slash education outreach programs and seasonal hiring.

This isn’t the first cut the parks have taken, either. Over the last three years, the park service’s budget has been cut five percent, Olson noted. While the amount of money the parks receive each year hasn’t changed, operating costs have continued to rise, resulting in park employees continually being asked to do more with fewer resources.

“I wouldn’t touch that question with my mother’s 10-foot pole,” Olson said when I asked him to consider why these cuts could happen, “but it is hard to understand when politicians say they love the parks so much and then do nothing to save them.”

To find an answer, I reached out to Representative Mike Simpson, whose Idaho district borders Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and who is chairman of the Interior Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives and a past advocate for the NPS—but I never heard back. I also called the office of Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, a known friend of the parks and a cabin owner in the Great Smoky Mountains, but again: no luck.

“IT'S AMAZING THAT THE national parks can go from being America’s Best Idea,” said Joan Anzelmo, spokesperson for the CNPSR, referring to a PBS special in 2010, “to sitting on the chopping block.”

The parks generate a massive return for the limited federal investment they receive. The total operating budget of the entire NPS is about $3 billion. A 2011 study from the NPS found that visitors spent around $30 billion in national parks that year. That means, roughly, that parks generate $10 for every $1 they receive. The visitors also support over 250,000 private sector jobs.

Beyond the economics, there’s the notion—a true notion—that the parks are an important part of our country's history and, therefore, the United States itself. “National parks are part of America’s story,” said Kristen Bringel, director of Legislative and Governmental Affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “They are where we find our constitution, they are the keeper of our history,”

While no one can say how the loss of staff will degrade the park’s operations, Anzelmo believes that wildlife will face increased poaching, visitors will put increased pressure on animal habitats, and as you multiply that across the board you see huge effects on natural and cultural resources.

“We might not be able to hire some of our seasonal staff, which will mean longer lines to get into the park and fewer backcountry permits available,” said Maureen Oltrogge, a public affairs officer at Grand Canyon National Park. “We are already seeing an increase in visitors at this point because of spring break travel, and it will only get worse as the summer season starts.”

She added that the park has several pipes that run from one end to the other to provide water, but they are subject to frequent breaks because of landslides in the canyon. Without maintenance crews out to fix these pipes, some trails will have to be closed down. Local economies will take a big hit, too. Visits to the area generated $467,257,000 for the region, along with countless related jobs.

Beyond that, some areas of the country are completely dependent on tourism in the national parks to sustain their economies, according to Bringel, who cited Estes Park, which is located just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park and relies heavily on money from tourism.

“We can’t speculate on the future at this point, but for the upcoming season, some of our businesses are already filling up,” Brooke Burnham, a media relations officer at Visit Estes Park, told me. “We are seasoned in waiting for the government at this point and we won’t get our feathers ruffled yet.” 

Burnham’s response seems to reflect the national mood on this issue. Despite media frenzy and political rancor, few people—outside of parks officials and advocates—seem to be worried about the upcoming reductions in government services. And, at this point, what can really be done?

If the sequester is enacted, employment at the parks will drop and access roads will close down. Fewer visitors will be allowed and, as a consequence, local economies may lose their consumer markets and start to falter. That impressive 10-to-1 ratio of investment return has already begun to teeter with the government’s slashing of the parks budget. And now comes the sequester. One of America’s most frustrating ideas looks like it’s going to chip away at its best.

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Can the Endangered Species Act Protect Against Climate Change?

The Endangered Species Act turns 40 this year, and the list of species that it has helped federal agencies bring back from the brink of extinction is long and impressive. The authors of this landmark legislation were reacting to rampant development and pollution that was depleting habitats, specifically wetlands. But since 1973, another factor has emerged that is putting myriad species in peril: climate change. One specific result of this shift, sea level rise, is already putting the squeeze on a range of species.

Surely, federal agencies can use the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to protect species threatened by climate change, too. Right? Well, it's complicated, says Dave Owen, associate professor at the University of Maine's School of Law.

"You've got a huge problem with sea level rise and climate change," Owen says. "If you were naive about political realities, you'd see the ESA as a mechanism for responding to climate change. But the agencies [that are empowered to enforce the ESA] are in a very tough spot because if they were to try to respond to sea level rise, they would have to try to regulate greenhouse gas emissions." And that, he says, is not politically feasible.

The root issue is not that the ESA is legislatively ineffective, but that the tools it provides agencies are not easily applied to things like sea level rise. In arguing for better protections of, say, the threatened Atlantic piping plover, it's one thing to ban vehicles from driving on beaches where they nest, but it's another to try to shut down a nearby coal plant because of the greenhouse gases it is emitting, Owen says. "You could make that legal argument, but the political reaction would be very intense."

"SHOE-HORNED" SPECIES
Species that have a very limited range or rely on a specific habitat type (known as habitat specialists) are clearly in danger if their homes are both coastal and in low-lying parts of the country. But species that can survive in a wide range of environments (known as habitat generalists)—that have suffered from severely reduced and fragmented habitat thanks to development, road buildings, and other stressors—are in many cases now facing another threat in the form of lapping waves.

This is true of the red wolf, a species that once ranged throughout the Southeast but is now relegated to its reintroduction area in a small peninsula along North Carolina's northeastern coast, says DeLene Beeland, whose book, The Secret World of Red Wolves, is being published this summer. Only about 100 wild red wolves live in the region, which equals around one percent of its former range.

That the red wolf has persisted as long as it has—despite its endangered status lasting decades, losses from illegal hunting, and its habitat being already so diminished—is remarkable. But the rising Atlantic will test its survival even more.

A combination of a naturally subsiding landscape (a leftover impact of glaciations) and saltwater encroachment from the coast means that the peninsula, home to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, is losing its forests at a pregnant pace. The soil on the peninsula is made of pocosin peat, which forms a wetlands that are especially vulnerable to saltwater. "When the peat comes into contact with saltwater due to sea level rise, it subsides even further," Beeland says.

A coastal tree called the Pond Pine is also, unsurprisingly, intolerant of the increasing salinity that surges inland during storms. "The needles start to brown even from saltwater spray," Beeland says. "Just driving through the refuge, I could see the retreating forests."

With much of the peninsula sitting just one to three feet above sea level and some projections showing sea level rise meeting or exceeding that, the picture is grim. What will this mean to the red wolf? It could force biologists to seek out a new reintroduction area, even though the current site has been used for more than 25 years, Beeland says.

Of course, the wolf is not the only endangered species threatened specifically by rising waters. The Florida panther is another example—indeed, sea level rise is just another threat in a long list of threats to species throughout the Sunshine State, particularly in the Florida Keys.

Wide-ranging habitat generalists like the red wolf and Florida panther would likely be resilient to many impacts of climate change, Beeland says, but the problem is that we've "shoe-horned them into these very small habitats" that are now being further diminished.

ADAPTATION
It's not just coast-hugging charismatic species that are being threatened, notes Owen, who points to salmon, smelt, and other aquatic residents of the Sacramento river delta. "That beaches are being swallowed is intuitive," he says, but even a small sea level rise along the Northern California coast will have ramifications for the inland delta, which plays a vital role in the entire state's fresh-water system (which is already imperiled by agricultural demands).

So can the ESA be modernized such that it could be a stronger tool to fight climate change? Owen says that's not likely. "For most of the past 40 years, federal agencies have been just defending the Act against changes that would weaken it," he says. That hasn't left much time or political leverage to actually make it stronger.

More effective, he says, would be a carbon tax: "In the long run, a cap and trade program will be a better fate for species, rather than looking for changes to the ESA."

Meanwhile, adaptation programs are focused on engineering a way to resist rising seas. The Nature Conservancy is partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a program in which they are establishing oyster reefs to buffer wave action and installing water-control systems that reduce saltwater intrusion into the pocosin wetlands.

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