Change is Coming: An Alaskan Oil Saga

Produced for KGNU radio program The Brink

Summary: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a 20 million acre expanse of land on Alaska’s North Slope. It is home to the Inupiat village of Kaktovik and the breeding grounds of the Porcupine Caribou, the primary food source for another Native group, the Gwich’in people. As the Trump administration pushes legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge up to drilling, the Gwich’in people express concern for their well-being and culture, while some Inupiat people of Kaktovik support drilling for the potential economic benefits it may bring. But the debate is not black and white, and legislation is live in Congress now to protect the Refuge from drilling.

The Coldest Place on Earth

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Dirk Hobman wants to take people on a journey through time, drilling down through frigid layers of history, past the era of the first Homo sapiens, to 200,000 years ago. That’s where his work begins.

Merging his backgrounds in ecology and photography, Hobman tells stories of the natural world. His most recent project, “The Color of Ice,” takes viewers into the frozen annals of ice cores, turning them into colorful masterpieces of paleoclimatology. The project hinged on his ability to sell the idea to the archive at the National Science Foundation Ice Core Facility in Lakewood.

Hobman is one of just a handful of artists who have been granted access to the archive to capture images of the priceless specimens held there. The facility houses an incredible 19,000 meters — nearly 12 miles — of ice core samples from Greenland, Antarctica and North America. 

“It’s like the coldest place on the planet, and it’s right here,” says Hobman, smirking at the irony of pursuing such a project, all while admitting to skiing only in the spring to avoid the unpleasant conditions of winter.  

Ice cores are cylinders of ice 2-6 inches wide and up to 2 miles long. They are typically drilled out of Arctic and Antarctic glaciers formed over time as each year’s snowfall turns into a layer of ice that then gets covered and compressed by the next year’s snowfall, on and on for millennia. The ice, therefore, contains a yearly graph of data, similar to that of a tree ring but going back much further, possibly millions of years.

Most ice cores that are drilled around the world get shipped to the facility in Lakewood for processing, making the Front Range somewhat of a hub for climate research. 

A tour of the facility is offered to the public, with the main attraction being a massive freezer held at negative 32 degrees Fahrenheit in order to keep the samples from melting and releasing the ancient air trapped within them. Geoffrey Hargreaves, curator of the collection for nearly 30 years, is cut out for the job as tour guide, walking leisurely into the freezer, past a cardboard cutout of Mr. Freeze, through the aisles of the main archive. 

Outside the freezer is a rack of extreme weather gear, untouched by Hargreaves and noticeably unoffered to those in the tour who are mostly dressed for school or work. Alas, the gear is meant only for the researchers who handle the samples in the adjacent exam room, which is held at a relatively balmy negative 11 degrees. 

Hargreaves says researchers have captured ice believed to be up to 800,000 years old, though the facility holds samples only going back 400,000 years, which were taken from a site in Antarctica where the coldest temperature on Earth — negative 129 degrees — was recorded. 

Core samples must travel precariously from their home in a remote ice sheet, via a cargo carrier and tagalong refrigerator mechanic, to Colorado. Once at the facility, the cores are left untouched to stabilize in their new climate, then eventually unpacked and cut with a saw to specific dimensions before being shipped off to climate research labs around the world. 

In his presentation to the tour group, Hargreaves shows a graph comparing historic levels of carbon dioxide and temperature change from 400,000 years ago to the present. The image spikes dramatically at the end after fluctuating in an upward trend from the start, as the Earth has warmed and cooled, with the decades since 1950 beginning an ongoing ascension beyond any other past measurements.

Hargreaves calls himself a science absolutist, but is happy to see artists like Hobman get creative with the ice. 

Hobman uses a macro lens to zoom in on the ice samples and show their crystalline structure and microscopic bubbles of ancient air. He ends his series, though, with an image of the dark rippling water of the Arctic Ocean, reminding viewers about the current reality of rapidly melting glaciers and thinning pack ice in the far North.

After a stint in the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art at CSU Fort Collins, Hobman’s alma mater, “The Color of Ice” found its permanent home in the place where it all began: the ice core facility.  

“Pretty cool,” Hobman says, unable to resist the pun.    

It’s not just a stereotype, outdoor enthusiasts make up 70 percent of the Mountain West

The outdoor industry has a superpower. Recent elections show an emerging voter block that crosses the partisan divide and cares deeply about protecting the environment.

Seven in ten people in the Mountain West refer to themselves as “outdoor enthusiasts” according to the State of the Rockies poll released Thursday. While the term can mean anything to anyone, it shows that public land issues in western states aren’t just political, they’re personal.  

“In at least 22 races across the West, public land issues were front and center in the 2018 midterms,” said Jennifer Rokala with the Center for Western Priorities who spoke on a panel at Outdoor Retailer, the industry trade show held in Denver, where the poll was released. “Politicians in those races had to be in favor of protecting public lands in order to win.” 

The State of the Rockies poll, which surveyed voters in Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah revealed that 53 percent of Republicans would support an increase in taxes to fund public land issues. This after a 35 day government shutdown lost the National Park Service an estimated $400,000 each day from loss of entrance fee revenue. 

On January 25, Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Joe Neguse announced they were introducing the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, an effort to protect Colorado’s public lands. In addition to establishing new wilderness areas and strengthening recreation opportunities, the bill includes prohibition of new oil and gas development in areas marked important by ranchers and sportsmen. 

After a high profile and catastrophic wildfire season, it’s no surprise that 84% of those who support a tax increase said the top priority for funding should be forest management to mitigate wildfires. 67% percent of voters overall believe wildfires are more of a problem than ten years ago, which is true. The most destructive and most deadly fire in California history last November killed 88 people and charred over 150,000 acres. 

In a predictable partisan twist, while voters come to the same conclusion that we need to take action, the reasoning differs along party lines according to the poll. The majority of Democrats believe the fires are worse due to climate change, while the majority of Republicans see it as a maintenance issue dealing with insufficient thinning and clearing of underbrush. 

While wildfires are seen as a top priority for funding, water issues topped the list seen as the most serious problem to deal with. The poll reveals that two-thirds of voters see the Western water supply as unpredictable, and 63% say low water levels in the rivers are an extremely serious concern.

“Water is the lifeblood of the West,” said Jon Goldin-Dubois of Western Resource Advocates who was also a participant in the Outdoor Retailer panel. 

He mentioned that drought can have a huge economic impact on our region, with water sports  representing a large portion of the outdoor industry. Not to mention the Colorado River is a source of drinking water for nearly 40 million Americans in seven states.

On Thursday, just six hours before a federal deadline, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a Drought Contingency Plan aimed at preventing the Colorado River from falling to catastrophically low levels. The plan will cost Arizona taxpayers $7 million. 

All of this is to say, politicians at the state level are noting the environmental concerns of their constituents. 

“This poll once again shows that Coloradans are adamant about protecting our natural spaces, reversing the harmful effects of climate change, and moving to a future of clean, affordable renewable energy,” said Governor Jared Polis in the State of the Rockies press release. 

With such broad support for conservation issues, Governor Polis is making a strong presence this year at Outdoor Retailer and attended as governor-elect in November to assure people of his plan to defend public lands and promote the outdoor recreation economy. His attendance at the trade show, which moved to Colorado from Utah last year in protest of the state’s public land policies, emphasizes an understanding that the outdoor recreation economy is critical to the state. 

As the outdoor industry engages its growing superpower, we can expect to see both brands and enthusiasts raise their collective voice to bring environmental issues to the fore.





Pre-Election Radio Piece

The following is a piece I did for CU Boulder radio station KVCU.

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Businesses take a stand on midterms

Ambient Sound:  Yelling and sneering from a crowd…

VO: Thanks in part to cuts to federal funding of public lands, outdoor enthusiasts and the companies that serve them are becoming increasingly political. Recently, 100 businesses throughout Colorado petitioned congress to continue the Land and Water Conservation Fund which lapsed in September. VO: The fund took a cut of taxes from offshore drilling and applied it to managing and developing public spaces.

Denver 7 news clip: Denver 7’s Lance Hernandez joins us tonight. Lance, if these cuts are made, it could put some big ticket projects in colorado in jeopardy.

VO: According to a recent report by Weber Shandwick, 56 percent of millennials said CEOs and other business leaders need to engage on hotly debated current issues more today than in the past. At the Patagonia store in Boulder, I spoke with Julia, the event organizer.

Julia: There are more people who have been coming in, like walking up to us thanking us for like our lawsuit against Bears Ears.

VO: Corporate spending on political campaigns is a new normal. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that political spending was protected by the First Amendment, businesses across the board are more vocally calling for support of their favorite candidates.  For the first time, Patagonia is openly endorsing two congressional candidates in Montana and Utah who want to protect public lands. Julia is localizing corporate involvement at the store.

Julia: Specifically this midterm season we’ve been working with Protect Our Winters. Um New Air Colorado dropped off some voting guides, so, we’re doing the best we can to kind of like, push people to vote as they’re like, watching films about skiing, or like watching Yvon Chouinard fall down a mountain, or coming to like a happy hour for beer or something like that. Always like, making sure we’re getting people registered to vote, especially since people haven’t been.

VO: On the other side of Pearl Street, Rob at Front Range Anglers is taking a different tack, saying they don’t want to get involved with politics, but…

Rob: We encourage everybody to vote.

Reporter: Alright. Do you guys...

Rob: That’s it [laughs]

VO: This midterm, over 300 business have joined the campaign with Patagonia, openly calling for giving employees time off to vote on election day.

Julia: Since we started doing it companies like the North Face joined in, Abercrombie and Fitch join in, Nike joined in. So it’s like the outdoor industry but also...

VO: At least for those companies who believe getting more people to the polls can have a positive impact on their agenda, customers and employees are feeling the energy.

Julia: Maybe one day we can get Election Day to be a national holiday for everybody not just special companies.

VO outro: This is Jenna Sampson with Under the Flatirons.



Profile of an adventurer

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Jean Muenchrath behind her home in Estes Park. Longs peak appears in the background. Photo by Jenna Sampson


A life-threatening fall down Mt Whitney creates a passion for mental strength

Jean Muenchrath’s internal dialogue began while she was laying in a tent on the brink of death.

“If I live until morning I will live all my most important dreams.” Jean repeated to herself.

She was stuck on California’s highest peak, Mt. Whitney. Her repeated thought had five days to calcify into a life-saving mantra as she waited out a storm and made her way to safety. But that was just the start of her story.

In her self-published book “If I live until morning” Muenchrath takes readers back to her early 20s in 1982 when, capping off a rare winter traverse of the John Muir Trail, she climbed Mt. Whitney. But in her rush to descend during the storm she fell down a rock face on the steep North side of the mountain. In the book she details a story that goes deeper than just a sequence of remarkable mountaineering mishaps. The tale extends to her lifelong quest to make peace with the chronic pain and emotional trauma left behind from the accident by developing a practice of meditation.

Mt. Whitney left Jean with a laundry list of injuries, any one of which would be severe enough by itself to warrant concern. Doctors found nerve damage to her bladder and thighs, a hematoma covering her left buttock with a large area of gangrene, a displaced sacrum, four fractured vertebrae, and a shattered tailbone. Not to mention minor frostbite on her toes, a concussion, and fractures to her pubic bone and hip.

The dream that drove her to survive was to visit the Himalaya, which she accomplished not long after her brutal recovery.  

“It took me everything to get to the Himalaya.” Jean explained from the couch in her home in Estes Park, glancing out the window at her towering neighbor, Longs Peak. “I think I want my ashes spread there...”

Jean is a petite woman with long grey locks and a palpable instinct of determination. Her speech is scattered with Buddhist ideas. She says things like “aging is a gift” and “westerners have a different definition of enlightenment.” In her modest home the guest room has been overtaken by a meditation space where the walls are filled with Sanskrit prayers and a shrine to Buddha. Just standing in the small space you can feel the incense and the yellow silk tapestry permeate your muscles and ease you into a mindful state.

In her hospital bed with only a morphine drip to keep her company, Jean wrote a letter to her friend Leanne Benton detailing the entire saga. The two only met at a map making class not long before, but she was the chosen one to receive such an important correspondence. Today they call each other “my dearest friend” and Benton is still in awe of Jean for her determination.

“She comes across as so fearless,” said Benton. “Only about 10 years ago she was at an all time physical low and I got a message from her asking if I could come put her dinner in the microwave.”

It was around then that Jean made an offer to her now partner Paul. He was out of cash from travel and needed a place to stay. He could use her spare room if he promised to take care of her. Since then, Benton said, Jean has transformed.

Every summer she makes a pilgrimage to the Drikung Kyobpa Choling center in Escondido, California to live in silence and study Tibetan meditation for two months. Once the silence begins, she spends each day working on mental strength. Such as redefining the pain and emotion that arise in her mind as things to observe, like clouds passing overhead, instead of issues to combat. Throughout the retreat she can communicate with nuns who run errands for fresh food or laundry via a written instruction left in the window. Paul, who is often there as well on his own retreat, sits by her side for meals.

“I enjoy the intimacy of silence very much,” said Paul. “It’s amazing how much can be effectively communicated nonverbally when both people are attuned and paying attention. Conventional interactions can feel coarse and ineffective by comparison.”

Despite all she’s been through, Jean works as a ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park. Of all national parks, this one has the third most active search and rescue team in the country where almost every other day a new SAR operation takes place. But to her it’s about protecting a place that an increasing number of people need to stay sane, whether they know it or not.

“When I ask park visitors ‘what are you here for’ they can’t articulate it on a deep level.” she said.

Today Jean appears fully mobile and without pain, but her pursuits are dampened by limitation. Due to continued issues with her sacrum, she can’t carry more than a 20 pound load on her back. This makes long-distance trekking difficult.

“Fortunately I still have a strong back and a love for getting Jean into her native habitat of the alpine backcountry,” said Paul. “So if we can’t get a mule or stay in a hut, I am committed to be her porter.”

Jean’s aspirations to travel through the mountains endures. Next she wants to circumambulate Mount Kailas in Western Tibet, also known as Meru, a sacred place for Tibetan Buddhists. The route travels over 30 miles with a high point of over 18,000 feet.

Both Paul and Jean’s beloved chiropractor have their work cut out for them.

Commitment

Deciding what kind of journalist to be seems like one of those things you can't really do. Like teaching someone how to be an artist, it feels like something better left to time and fate. But as I take myself more seriously and go all-in on this path, I've embraced the need to determine this for myself with immediacy. 

I've debated with my journal again and again what stories I want to tell, but there's a distinct contrast between those I find most important and those I actually want to report. As I think through how I want to craft the next phase of my life, I tend to think in more vivid detail than I have in the past, when I would leave my life up to fate (aka to others). The whole "your life is art" mantra has me organizing my thoughts in a way that tries to be honest about my essence and the aesthetic I want my life to imbue when I look at it from above. What colors and shapes go well together and what will the message be?

A wonderful picture is emerging as I make lists and scribble thoughts. How powerful to make decisions and move forward without hesitation, knowing the picture you're painting is entirely your own.

A photo story

Working within the creative constraint of telling a story in just five frames is a challenge when there are so many images left over. Selecting which ones to leave out and trusting that the viewer can use her imagination to fill the gaps is a process.

Adventures at the Telluride Mushroom Festival

Learning how to use Adobe Premiere and feeling very self-conscious about it. Working with a camera in the context of movement (ie: video) is exponentially more difficult than still shots. Most of my footage was shaky and frustrating to edit, let alone watch. Nonetheless, I'll share it here for posterity.