Last June, Sally Jewell, the chief executive officer of Recreational Equipment Inc (REI), stood beside Christine Gregoire, then governor of Washington, and Utah Governor Gary Herbert to present the Western Governors' Association’s report on the economic impact of outdoor recreation. It showed that Americans spend more money on outdoor recreation than they do on pharmaceuticals. More than on cars. More than on energy for their homes. In 2011, we spent $645 billion on outdoor recreation. The point of the report was to say: Look, the recreation industry is an economic powerhouse.
Many individuals and organizations within the outdoor gear industry believe it is not just an economic engine. They say the outdoor recreation industry is—or should be—a conservation engine. Groups such as the Conservation Alliance (founded by REI, Patagonia, The North Face, and Kelty) and the Outdoor Industry Association engage outdoor industry members to lobby for greater protections for and access to public lands for recreation. The Outdoor Industry Association even has a Political Action Committee (led in part by REI’s vice president of public affairs). It has had some victories, winning public lands protections that might not have happened without intense lobbying. But that was, as Greg Hanscom explains in High Country News, before the 2010 elections put many Tea Party conservatives into positions of power in the West, and before the Obama administration green-lit some large natural gas projects on federal land.
When it comes to public lands and their many uses, how can the outdoor industry possibly match the influence of the oil and gas industry? As Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar prepares to the leave Obama Cabinet, the answer might be in his replacement.
Last week, Jewell became President Obama’s candidate to succeed former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar. It’s an unusual choice, as this position typically goes to a Western politician. But it is clearly a strategic move on Obama’s part to try to bridge two of the missions of the department’s Bureau of Land Management that are often at odds: federal lands for recreation and wildlife versus federal lands for energy development. Before she led REI, Jewell was a banker. But before that, she was an engineer for Mobil. How many other candidates would have such a deep background in business, recreation, and energy?
“From where I sit this morning,” said John Sterling, Conservation Alliance's executive director, on the day of Jewell’s nomination, “I can't imagine she would not be nominated. My guess is that the Democrats will fall in line. The GOP would need to find something about her really abhorrent [to not approve her], and then they would have to filibuster.”
Unsurprisingly, outdoor industry leaders are very hopeful about the nomination and what it could do to elevate the industry’s position of power in Washington, D.C. “Anyone in the outdoor industry would be pleased that one of our own is likely to run the Interior Department,” Sterling says. “She is very pragmatic. Her experience in both the outdoor industry and oil industry will probably serve her well in running an agency that has conflicting mandates to provide energy and also provide [lands for recreation].”
“This nomination is an absolute game-changer,” says Peter Metcalf, CEO and president of Black Diamond Equipment. “So much of what happens in Washington, D.C., and in politics, is symbolic.” Jewell's nomination is important, he adds, “not only because she is a woman and an executive—and I believe she’d be the first c-level executive in the job—but the most important part is that, though she has experience in banking and experience in the oil industry, those things aren’t what forged who she is. Her life has been forged by human-powered recreation, by a life of applying herself against mountains and canyons and crags. What that says to me is that politics has caught up to the fact that the highest, best use of the public lands is weighing that use toward recreation.”
Metcalf, who calls Jewell a “professional friend,” says Jewell has been a very high-profile CEO for REI. “She is engaged in public policy and has been a real driver in the level of activism REI plays,” he says. “REI under Sally Jewell was a wonderful leadership organization. It helped drive the industry forward, that's very true with relation to stewardship, access, and not all but some wilderness issues.”
NUMBERS GAME But how likely is Jewell to really move the needle away from energy and toward conservation?
To answer that, it’s important to first consider the lay of the land. “The Secretary of the Interior will have under her jurisdiction about a quarter of a billion acres of BLM land alone, and within that domain only a fraction is part of the National Landscape Conservation System inventory,” explains Ken Rait, director of the BLM Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Less than 11 percent of BLM’s quarter of a billion acres are protected.” In contrast with BLM, almost half of the lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service are protected, and of course National Park Service lands have very strong protections.
The arguably harder conservation battles are in the BLM, where energy development or other extractive use pressures on federal lands are high. But with the National Park Service being in serious financial straits and facing some park closures, Jewell would have some pressing issues to oversee in that department, as well.
Historically, groups like the Conservation Alliance focus on issues that are “more in the Congressional nexus than the Department of Interior nexus, per se,” says Rait, but notes that “there are real conservation gains that the Secretary of the Interior can deliver. There is a great deal of room for movement.”
INDUSTRY TIES According to the Sunlight Foundation, Jewell has donated $11,000 to the Outdoor Industry Association. She also serves on a number of boards, including that of the Initiative for Global Development and the National Parks Conservation Association. While she is not a D.C. insider, she has been an active Democratic donor and worked closely with the Obama administration on the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which focuses on getting kids interested in outdoor play, partly by promoting urban parks and trails.
Jewell was rumored to have been an Interior Secretary candidate for Obama’s first term. But Metcalf says the timing is better now for Jewell; she’ll be more effective because Obama is redirecting his focus on environmental issues, whereas health care dominated his first term. Metcalf also thinks that with large reserves of natural gas already being extracted, the pressure on new energy exploration will be waning.
“I think Salazar also, unfortunately, used up a lot of capital himself during the [Deepwater Horizon] Gulf oil spill,” Metcalf adds, pointing to reports that the Interior Department had downplayed warnings that the project was risky because it worried about putting constraints on drilling.
For Jewell, it’s a new beginning and a prime time for impact, he says, because she won’t have to worry about re-election and because the significance of the recreation economy is something she can tout. Under her reign, REI climbed up from an uncertain future to become a $2 billion concern, which derives 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources.
“One thing I've seen Sally do really well is listen to different groups and find common ground with people with differing viewpoints,” says NPCA president Tom Kiernan. “That, combined with her let’s-get-going approach that she exemplified at REI, I think will suit her well” to deal with the challenges of leading the Interior Department.
“This is the time for the [outdoor recreation] industry to take delivery for what they’ve been asking for,” Rait says. “This is their moment in the sun.”
Last January, I met up with a long-lost college friend for lunch in Kunming, China. Over a bowl of dumplings, we poured through pictures of his bicycle trips around the Yunnan province where he’d spent the last several years. One set stood out, and my boyfriend and I decided to rent a motorcycle and set out for the region of the map labeled Nujiang.
A smooth, new road took us alongside the Nu River for the four days of our trip; in the gorge below, whitewater boiled over boulders, and alluvial fans spread out at the base of snow-melt channels, planted with terraces of rice and green and yellow winter vegetables. We stayed in minority villages and towns, where Christianity and Islam were practiced and Mandarin was not the first language.
But while the Yangtze and the Mekong have succumbed to Asia’s accelerating demand for electricity, their powerful, wild waters pressed into the service of major dams, the Nu is the last free-flowing river in Southeast Asia. How long that claim can stand remains to be seen.
Over the last decade, a full 20 dams have been planned along the Nu—13 have been proposed in its upper regions in China, and seven more are pending in Myanmar (map). Protests came from all corners—foreign embassies, local conservation groups, and grassroots groups—and in late 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao put development of the 13 Chinese dams on hold for further environmental review. After the suspension was upheld in 2009, the plans were revived in mid-2011. In Myanmar, plans also seem to be back on track.
One of the many people hoping to stop—or at least help change the shape of those plans—is Travis Winn, a 29-year-old river guide based in Kunming. His company, Last Descents, is focused on bringing people from China’s growing cities out to see the last remaining wild rivers in Western China and, in doing so, martial their support for protecting them.
Winn has been a fixture of China’s emerging river running scene for about a decade, following in the footsteps of his father, a geologist who began doing fieldwork on rivers in the western part of China in the early 1990s.
Both of Winn’s parents are river runners—his mother was a hydrologist for the U.S. Geographical Survey—and they introduced Travis and his sister to their love of rivers at a young age. At nine years old, Travis was already hooked on kayaking, and by his teen years, he was working as a river guide in the Grand Canyon.
That experience demonstrated that river recreation can play an important role in conservation. “In the U.S., in the 1970s, the people who became engaged in river conservation efforts weren’t necessarily people who paddled their own rafts or kayaks,” Winn says. “They were people who floated down as a commercial passenger and then went back and wrote a letter to their local Congressman. Once they learned that this was there, they wanted to have the opportunity to interact with a natural river.”
It’s a model Winn hopes can help save Chinese rivers, too. The guiding principle behind Last Descents, as well as his work with the China Rivers Project (which he co-founded with Kristin McDonald, backed by the Earth Island Institute) and other conservation efforts in China, seems to be based on an unshakeable belief that seeing is believing.
“As a river guide, one of the biggest attractions for me is watching someone who’s never had the opportunity to interact with a river or had that kind of extended period of time outdoors, camping and living along the river,” says Winn. “They’re away from their cell phones and computers, out of their comfort zone, and for me, seeing how they react to that—it’s incredibly rewarding.”
The experience may transform individuals, but can it transform national policy—especially in China?
WINN, HIS COLLEAGUES, AND his early customers set their sights on the fast-disappearing Yangtze, which had attracted commercial rafting since the beginning of the 1990s. They started with organized trips on the Great Bend of the Yangtze with international rafting enthusiasts. Fees from those individuals helped subsidize participation from specific, invited Chinese who were, at least in theory, in a position to influence policy. Conservation organizations, local officials, journalists, and academics made up the list of invitees.
The trips were popular, and there were some successes; in 2009, a Yangtze expedition brought together influencers from Beijing University, conservation groups, and public officials. A resulting research paper, which outlined significant ecological, seismic, and cultural risks associated with overdevelopment of the Yangtze, was circulated among government channels. They were optimistic.
But in 2012, the Great Bend of the Yangtze was lost to rafters, as access was shut down and key rapids were flooded by reservoirs. The Yangtze still has other raftable runs, but none is as iconic as that one. “It was an incredibly heartbreaking experience,” Winn says.
Now, Last Descents is going back to basics: “We’re trying to think more about how to create a business where we’re creating meaning in the lives of these up-and-coming Chinese, who probably haven’t connected with nature before,” Winn says. “If we can create a sustainable business model doing that, we’ll eventually have an impact on conservation.”
This time, they’re focusing their efforts on the Nu.
At its source in the Tibetan Plateau, the Nu is a shallow, warm stream, snaking through grasslands and full of sediment that turn the waters red. Downstream, the river carves out a canyon, amid juniper and pine forest. Monasteries with gold roofs peek out from behind the trees. “The sections of the river in Tibet are some of the most magical places I’ve been,” Winn says.
From there, the river passes through the rain shadow of the East Tibetan Alps, an arid area where the river becomes very narrow—and very deep. In one place, the whole river flows through a single, meter-wide gap, a discovery Winn and his partners made on a first descent a few years ago.
Down in Yunnan, the river becomes “a kayaking playground, with tremendous surfing waves and really fun rapids that are—for the most part—low consequence,” as Winn describes it. This section is also home to an outsize number of China’s minority communities—Tibetans, Lisu, Nu, Bai, and Dulong are among the ethnic groups that make their homes there.
It’s this unique blend of wild nature, cultural diversity, and easy access that have made the Nu River the perpetual “next big thing” in Chinese tourism. Two years ago, that new, paved road made the Nu a destination to “see before the crowds come.” There are airports in several nearby towns, and guesthouses in the villages along the river. But while these benefits haven’t (yet) brought tourists in the hordes seen elsewhere in China, it has brought other benefits.
“My guess is that the reason the Nu has been protected so long is because it does have a road along it,” Winn says. “A lot of people can see it, at a lot of times of the year. Chinese conservationists have been able to mount their case here, because they can show people this place.”
Consumer pressure would certainly help provide leverage for conservationists working on the river, especially if added to complaints from China’s southern neighbors on the river and local conservationists. But it’s not clear that the industry can grow fast enough. Two of the Nu’s 13 planned dams appear to be preparing for further construction with new equipment and preliminary infrastructure.
That said, Winn is optimistic that the Chinese rafters will come, and with their presence will come more visibility for alternatives to big dam development. And in China, the potential size of the outdoor industry makes it a force to be reckoned with.
Ski resorts, recreational cycling, and climbing have all emerged alongside the country’s rapid economic development. A recent industry report (PDF) estimates that there are now five million Chinese skiers, up sharply from just 10,000 in 1996. Rafting and kayaking are more recent additions, with real growth starting in just the past three to five years.
Shorter trips on accessible stretches of the Nu River may be ideal for this emerging, urban market. The roads are good, but perhaps more importantly, there’s consistent cell phone and 3G wireless data coverage along most of the gorge. And, as elsewhere in the world, with mobile data comes social media. If letter-writing campaigns could protect American rivers in the past century, maybe newbie rafters posting on Weibo and Twitter will protect Chinese rivers in this one.
TO SEE THE NU: Last Descents plans to run trips on the Nu in November and March to May. The river levels are safe through the winter months, but low temperatures recommend spring, before the full snowmelt arrives. A six-day trip, roundtrip from Beijing, runs $2,800-4,000. Contact Travis Winn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Celeste LeCompte is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco and Guangzhou, China. She writes about innovation and the environment.
Everything is connected; a catastrophic weather event in one hemisphere can have ripple effects on the other side of the globe. That is no news to climate scientists. But last summer, as the United States was in the throes of one of its worst wildfire seasons on record, climate scientist Jason Box, who studies Greenland's ice sheet, wondered about a direct link between those fires and the frightening speed at which the ice sheet was melting.
Among the fires last summer were large tundra blazes in Alaska and Canada. Box used weather analysis and computer models to show that smoke from those fires later passed over the Greenland ice sheet. Last summer also marked a catastrophic, unprecedented milestone in the loss of that ice sheet: 90 percent of the world's largest island was thawing in July.
But after being denied a grant from the National Science Foundation, Box decided to turn to the masses. He is attempting to crowdfund an expedition to Greenland this summer in order to sample ice cores and study whether the wildfires are not just correlated to last summer's exceptional melting, but in fact caused it.
Snow's reflectivity (or "albedo" in science speech) starts to plummet when white snow turns to water, because water is darker and absorbs more of the sun's energy. This can reduce albedo to 60 percent. Add soot generated by wildfires and/or industrial emissions (transportation, etc.), which is deposited on the ice by traveling through the air, and the reflectivity falls much further, to south of 40 percent. This cranks up the melting all the more. Dirty snow melts faster than white snow.
Called the Dark Snow Project, Box's crowdfunding experiment germinated after he received some philanthropic seed money following the publication of a Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibbon. It wasn't nearly enough to fund an expedition, says Box, but it was enough to get the ball rolling. After spending some of the money on Web design, he presented his findings about the movement of soot from the wildfires over Greenland at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in early December. He also used the attention to announce his latest project.
What followed has been steady and strong support, generated through various news stories, especially a piece published by Slate which Box says has driven more than half the traffic to the Dark Snow website.
So far, the effort has raised north of $70,000 of the $150,000 needed to run the expedition. "We have a Kickstarter campaign drafted and are going to launch it when we are within reach of the final funding goal," says Box, adding: "We are doing well on our own."
SCIENCE-STARTER Is this the new reality? Will more and more scientists need to turn to the masses and to platforms like Kickstarter to get their funding? "Some funders say they're outraged that the government doesn’t support us, but the reality is that we are trying to get ahead of that," Box explains.
The quick "no" he received from the NSF to his initial request didn't surprise Box, because he'd been seeking money from the rapid funding program, which is generally used to fund research in the wake of a volcano or a similar event that requires a quick response. Plus, Box had recently received a rapid funding grant for another project. He says he could have held off and applied for government funding through other avenues, but that process would have taken at least a year and he wants to strike while the memory of last summer's fire season is still hot, so to speak.
"The 2012 wildfires captured the attention of the American public," he says. "Not just in Colorado but elsewhere, so the timing is good. Let's get there this summer."
Besides, Box likes to try new things. "It's like an experiment. I'm learning a ton about marketing and what motivates people and how to use the media to engage in citizen science," he says.
He says he's yet to find any animosity from the scientific community, either. "I spoke with program managers from NASA and NSF.... I was kind of apologizing to them. I don’t want to alienate them [by crowdfunding]. But they were like, 'No, no, this is exciting.'"
Still, the crowdfunding model does raise some concerns. With so much attention for the project coming from Slate, Box worries about uneven support. "Citizen science is attractive but not without a potential political bias when climate change is concerned. I doubt many donors are from the political right—their opinion leaders are messaging them away from climate change science support."
If it takes off, crowdfunded science could create a platform for more nimble, fast-paced research that isn't bogged down by bureaucracy.
But what if Box and his colleagues are able to prove a direct link between last summer's wildfires and accelerating glacial melt? Then what? "I expect wildfire management is possible," he says, "but only through the indirect policy of greenhouse gas emission reduction."
At first, a bullfight feels about as serious as a war reenactment. The event begins with a trumpet call and a formal procession of people and animals in silly and highly elaborate costumes. The erect postures and stern expressions of the bullfighters feel so antiquated and so out of place and time that they only really call attention to the urgent modernness of the present. Then the parade clears out, and the first bull enters the ring.
It all happens fairly quickly. The bull runs a few proud laps before he is drawn to the center of the ring by a cape-wielding matador. Then he is lanced by a picador on a staid horse, stuck with colorful barbed sticks by banderilleros, and finally stabbed by the matador with a silver sword. He stumbles for a few moments in a humiliated rage. Then his body is dragged out of the arena by a pair of mules, often in a full circle for optimal viewing, leaving a dark trail across the golden dirt.
When the bull has been removed, groundskeepers enter the ring to re-chalk the two concentric white circles inside which the matador had held the animal while the picadors were getting their horses into place. They re-rake the dirt over where the body was dragged, and they pour new dirt where the bull fell. The groundskeepers, like everybody else who steps into the ring, wear dramatic, ornamented outfits. Even the most basic tasks at a bullfight drip with formality and pageantry.
ON A RECENT SUNDAY, I attended my first bullfight, a mano-a-mano (head-to-head matchup) between Diego Silveti and the superstar Julián “El Juli” López at the world’s largest bullring, the Plaza México, in Mexico City. Many of the 40,000 people in the crowd were well-dressed, upper-class types who looked like they had just been imported from Madrid to give the atmosphere a Spanish accent; many of the others were working-class Mexican men sipping sangria from canvas canteens.
We sat high up in the cheap seats. Specifically, our section was general sol, general admission on the sunny side of the arena. (Tickets in the shade are more expensive.) Sitting up high, I was struck first by the perfect roundness of the building. There was something claustrophobic about the circularity, as if we were all enclosed in our own bullring. But there was also an equality about it; no home plate or 50-yard line by which to judge the quality of our seats. Even from high up, I could look down over the steep bleachers with a perfect view of the action below—action that seemed to exist in a different century from mine. The tops of nearby skyscrapers peaked out over the arena walls, but inside, it was all capes, swords, and pasodoble music.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about bullfighting in the context of war, which probably doesn’t surprise you. But he was less interested in the vestiges of war than in death. Hemingway saw bullfighting the way many traditionalists do: as a ceremonial display of courage and nobility by man and beast; not a sport but an artform; a cultural event; a tragedy on the order of Shakespeare. In “Death in the Afternoon,” he wrote:
The only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bullring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it. I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death.
I was prepared for violent death when I arrived at Plaza México, and violent death was what I got. The first bull was small and puppy-like; he hardly seemed vicious. After a series of hypnotic dodges and maneuvers that were so elegant as to not even look dangerous, El Juli failed on the initial thrust of his sword. The steel blade clanked down to the dirt. Only on the third thrust was the sword (called an estocada) successfully inserted. The matador rolled his eyes, thinking finally, and went to retrieve his hat from where he had ceremoniously placed it in the center of the ring. The bull seemed suddenly aware that not only was he doomed, but that he had been duped, publicly humiliated. He bucked briefly and desperately, then he fell for a final time. The trumpets played a funereal dirge. I have never been to war, but bullfighting as an approximation for it only makes sense to me in that both activities are draped in flags and often based on antiquated ideas.
Bullfighting aficionados would say it’s “traditional,” not “antiquated.” One fan told me a few days after the fight that you have to grow up with bullfighting to appreciate it. He explained that the event was layered with small traditional flourishes. For instance, he said, each trumpet melody has its own meaning, and the judge of the bullfight, known as the presidente, decides which will be played. This lined up with the relaxed-yet-attentive vibe at Plaza México. Mostly quiet after the start, the spectators erupted in unison during the first great ole, seemingly out of nowhere. Then came whistles, cheers, and more oles at various points in the proceedings.
IS VIOLENT DEATH, LIKE Hemingway says, really “one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental?” Violence, like anything else, happens in context. A bullfight is a lavish and carefully orchestrated ritual. It hardly feels simple or fundamental, even in the primal way that hunting does. Before being liberated by death, the bull is made to suffer through pre-ordained phases of injury at the hands of the picadores and banderilleros. He is humiliated and taunted by the matador, who postures with mad ego, making light of death, and light of his alleged opponent. It is true that on rare occasions, the bull is granted a pardon for displaying exceptional courage, but it seems to me that for the unknowing animal, what we call courage has a lot more to do with survival instincts.
When the third bull of the day entered the ring, thick and wild-eyed, it occurred to me that until that very moment, he had lived a charmed life. He had been bred for strength, raised for four years on a large ranch, pampered and prepared. He would die a miserable public death, and afterward he would be butchered for meat. Is this worse than the life of typical beef cow, who after six months alongside his mother is sent to a crowded feedlot to be fattened up with grain and injected with antibiotics for another six months before meeting his own inglorious death by captive bolt pistol? Obviously this is a false choice. More ethical options exist. But the hypothetical is worth considering. Which life and death would you prefer?
At Plaza Mexico, death was the main concern, and yet it did not appear to be a concern at all. It was merely inevitable. Outside the arena, streetside vendors sold stuffed bulls to children without irony. Despite a growing anti-bullfighting sentiment in Mexico, there were no political protesters to be seen. Inside, after a particularly magnificent performance against his second bull, El Juli was awarded its ears as trophies. Silveti was awarded an ear, too. The trumpets played on, and the groundskeepers raked the dirt in the ring where the bulls had been dragged away.
Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. His work has appeared in Slate, Deadspin, The Daily Beast, and The Best American Sports Writing. He founded the baseball blog Pitchers & Poets and is a founder of The Classical.
Amid an increasingly conservative Canadian
government focused on exploiting the land's resources, the country's indigenous people have risen up through a grassroots
protest movement called Idle No More.
The Idle No More protest movement was born in late 2012,
started by four activists in Saskatchewan who wanted to garner support to rally
against a wide-ranging bill, C-45, that would remove significant tribal
authority over Canadian waterways by overhauling the country's 130-year-old Navigable
Waters Protection Act. But the bill passed just before Christmas. Its passage
has only stoked the movement, which is also galvanizing indigenous
groups not only across Canada but those in the U.S. and South America, as well. Demonstrations linked to the movement have sprung up from California to Wisconsin to Maine.
Environmental justice is one of the major themes being
addressed, and in British Columbia, protests are focused on Northern Gateway, a
proposed pipeline that would run 730 miles, traversing the Rockies and
Coast mountain ranges and hundreds of waterways before its terminus in British
Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, one of the largest contiguous tracts of
temperate rainforest left in the world.
While the press in the United States has not covered the
protests a great deal, Idle No More is major news in Canada and the movement
gained significant momentum via Twitter (which you'll see by searching
#idlenomore). Idle No More protests, often taking the form of flash-mob style
drum circles in shopping malls and other public areas, have been attracting
thousands of participants and resulting in civil disobedience arrests.
While the links between Idle No More and the Northern
Gateway protest movement are informal, they're part of a wider reaction among
indigenous Canadians to an increasingly conservative government, says
Chris Darimont, professor at University of Victoria Geography Department and science director for Raincoast Conservation.