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Visiting Bear’s Ears, Reflecting on Roosevelt and Zinke

Teddy Roosevelt Display - Natural Bridges National Monument

A display greeting visitors at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, with Teddy Roosevelt’s proclamation declaring the area as protected lands. An ironic display given the proximity to Bear’s Ear’s National Monument, and what supposed Roosevelt devotee Ryan Zinke and his Department of Interior have done to conservation efforts in the US.

In June, our family took a vacation to the western United States, visiting almost a dozen different National Parks and National Monuments. For a part of the trip we were based in Moab in eastern Utah, with two subsequent days in Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.  On the travel day in between those two locations, we were going to Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah when we realized that Bear’s Ears National Monument was nearby. Given the controversy surrounding Bear’s Ears, we had to make a short detour to visit.

Bear’s Ears is so named for a pair of adjacent buttes thought to resemble a pair of bear’s ears.  In Navajo legend, the buttes were formed from the ears of Changing Bear Maiden, who was beautiful and desired by all men.  Tricked into marrying Coyote, Changing Bear Maiden’s brother attempted to hide her from him by cutting off her ears and changing her form. The ears became the prominent buttes for which the National Monument was named.

Bear’s Ears was targeted by the Trump administration for a reduction in size. Key to that move was Senator Orrin Hatch, who suggested the move to the administration shortly after the January 2017 inauguration.  Why reduce the size of a National Monument?  Money of course. It was thought there were some potential oil, gas, and mineral sources on some of the land.  Hatch submitted his own proposed “shapefile” (a digital boundary) to the administration, looking like a heavily gerrymandered political district, with boundaries drawn to eliminate potential resource extraction locations from the Monument boundaries. The suggested boundary was adopted largely as is.  The move was completed on December 4th, 2017, when Trump issued issued a proclamation reducing the size of the monument by an astounding 85%.

The area itself is gorgeous. On much of the lowlands around Bear’s Ears, sagebrush flats are interspersed with dry pinyon and juniper woodlands.  The two Bear’s Ears buttes themselves reach up to 9,058 feet, with heavily forested and green slopes.  It’s rugged and wild land, with little in the way of current development or anthropogenic land uses other than some grazing cattle.

Bear's Ears National Monument - Summit

A small gravel and rock road leads to a small pass between the “ears” of Bear’s Ears, giving you wonderful looks at the two rugged buttes.

There’s a rough unpaved road that leads up to the buttes themselves, allowing you to drive between the two buttes and towards the interior of the National Monument. When I say “rough”, I mean a road that you DEFINITELY wouldn’t take if there had been any recent rain, and a road that we probably had no business taking our rental car. Given the infamy of what’s happened to Bear’s Ears though, we did make the drive up.  It’s quiet and isolated…we only encountered one other car on the road (thankfully, given the narrowness of the road!). The literal quiet in places such as this is something I’ve REALLY learned to appreciate, as there are fewer and fewer locations where you can sit and enjoy your surroundings without hearing even a hint of noise from nearby transportation routes or people.  A beautiful location that we thoroughly enjoyed.

Natural Bridges National Monument is adjacent to Bear’s Ears. We spent time hiking in that Monument, and also stopped at the visitor’s center (Bear’s Ears doesn’t have it’s own visitors center). As you enter the Natural Bridges visitor’s center, you’re greeted by a lifesize cutout of Teddy Roosevelt, with a quote of his own proclamation from 1908, establishing the area as a National Monument. Irony…pure irony.  That’s what went through my mind after seeing the Roosevelt display, just after visiting Bear’s Ears.

The reason? Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, fancies himself as a Teddy Roosevelt devotee.  From the day he started the position, Zinke has constantly compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt.  As a “fan” of the outdoors and using the outdoors for personal enjoyment, Zinke and Roosevelt may have some common ground. Roosevelt himself has a checkered past.  He’s considered an icon for conservation in the United States, while simultaneously being labeled as deplorable for his treatment of Native Americans.  Other informational signs at Natural Bridges note that Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by the Pubelos, Utes, and Navajos…given that Zinke and Trump completely ignored the Native American communities’ history and desire to protect this land, it’s clear that Zinke too shares Roosevelt’s complete lack of respect for Native American rights.  It’s not forgivable in either case, but with Roosevelt it was more a mirroring of prevalent attitudes in the country.  Over 100 years later, you’d hope someone like a Zinke or Trump would be more enlightened (hint…they’re not).

Bear's Ears National Monument

A view of the two famed “ears” of Bear’s Ears National Monument, from the small road leading to the top. A dry sage, juniper, and pinyon pine landscape becomes more lush as you move up towards the buttes, with greener deciduous and evergreen forests at the top.

Soon after the naming of Zinke as Secretary of the Interior, Grist published an interview with Roosevelt scholar and historian Douglas Brinkley about the comparisons between Zinke and Roosevelt. Brinkley notes some similarities, stating that both were military men, both have/had massive egos, and both were “conservationists”, in that they appreciated our natural lands. Again, however, much of that “appreciation” is based not on environmentalism or even protection of a natural state, and more on the exploitation of that land for human gain.  “Human gain” can mean the hunting and fishing that both Zinke and Roosevelt enjoyed, but also means timber harvesting, cattle grazing, and mineral extraction.

Brinkley does make the clear distinction between “Conservationist” and “Environmentalist”.  The Zinke definition of “conservationist” is a far cry from the modern definition of conservationist, and in complete opposition to modern environmentalist views. Zinke has a history of touting himself as a modern-day Roosevelt conservationist, but turning a blind eye on environmental issues when push comes to shove.  When Zinke ran for Congress in Montana, he was originally given skeptical-yet-hopeful grades for his supposedly pro-environment ideology. That changed the moment he took office. His voting record consistently showed a complete disdain for conservation and environmentalism, with the League of Conservation Voters giving him  a lifetime score of a mere 4% (!!!) for their National Environmental Scorecard. Similar to the somewhat hopeful attitudes towards Zinke before he took office a DOI, I suspect the Brinkley interview would be quite different if held today, after Zinke’s anti-environmentalist views were made even more clear.

Despite Roosevelt’s well-established faults, there’s little doubt he was a true “fan” of America’s natural heritage. Roosevelt has to be rolling over in his grave based on supposed fanboy Zinke’s moves related to conservation of US lands.  Under his guidance the Department of Interior has eliminated over 2 million acres of protected lands. They’ve moved to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.   After a very successful program under Obama to establish state, federal, and private partnerships to protect the Sage Grouse in the Western U.S., Zinke and DOI have scrapped the plan and moved to expand mineral extraction and grazing on fragile sagebrush habitats on which the Grouse depends. As with much of Trump’s administration, Zinke is clearly beholden to the oil and gas industry, with conservation barely considered in any of DOI’s land management decisions. As this story from the New York Times reports, Department of Interior personally were LITERALLY asked by Zinke to prepare a summary of each National Monument in the United States, and what the oil, gas, and mineral production potentials were on those lands. 

Ryan Zinke…other than your ego and your disdain for Native American rights, you are no Teddy Roosevelt.  

It’s such a beautiful, rugged landscape. I  hope it’s kept in this state in the coming decades.  However, indications aren’t favorable, based on what’s happening at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, another Monument that was drastically cut in size by Zinke and the Trump administration.  Mere months after a reduction in size of that monument, a Canadian mining company has announced plans to mine copper and cobalt from lands that were previously protected.

Your national “protected” lands, up for auction to the highest bidder. THAT is the legacy you shall be remembered for, Mr. Zinke.

Bear's Ear's National Monument - Sign

A display at Natural Bridges National Monument, with the two prominent buttes from Bear’s Ears in the background. As the sign notes, Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by multiple Native American Tribes, tribes which all put heavy pressure on the Trump administration and Zinke to keep the land protected.

Why “Alex” > “Olivia” > “Nate” — Health care in America

Three Happy Children

Three happy children, “Alex’, “Olivia”, and “Nate”, living in a world where Alex will receive better health care than Olivia, and Nate will receive the worst health care of all 3, all because of their socioeconomic status.

We’re two weeks into a new Congress that smells blood in the water.  Other than a flurry of legislation designed to limit transparency and ethics oversight (always a great sign when that’s their first thought when they arrive in Washington), the major focus has been the dismantlement of Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act, ACA).  What is abundantly clear is that those voting to “repeal and replace” the ACA, without having ANY idea of what they might eventually replace it with, are oblivious to the impacts of the law on real Americans.  What follows is a NOT so hypothetical story of three children, “Alex”, “Olivia”, and “Nate”, and what health care policy in the United States means to them.

Alex, Olivia, and Nate are all young teenagers or pre-teens.  Each has Type-1 diabetes, the auto-immune version where their own misguided immune system has attacked and destroyed the islet cells in their pancreas’ that make insulin.  For the rest of their lives, they will be dependent upon insulin injections.  It’s a life fraught with risk. If you don’t control your blood sugars well, you’ll have frequent hyperglycemia events (high blood sugar). Over time, that will contribute to kidney disease, eye disease, cardio-pulmonary disease, and peripheral nerve damage. If you’re extremely vigilant and try to control your blood sugars very tightly, you’re more likely to have hypoglycemic events (low blood sugar), a dangerous condition that can cause seizure, coma, and even death.  Long-term blood sugar control is measured with a patient’s “A1C”, a hemoglobin-based measure from your blood.  A “normal” A1C is less than 6.5. The higher a diabetic’s A1C is, the worse their long-term blood sugar control, and the higher their risk for complications.

There’s little doubt the ACA is a god-send to Type-1 diabetics like these Alex, Olivia, and Nate.  No longer can they be refused insurance coverage for their pre-existing condition.  Diabetes is an expensive, life-long disease, but thanks to the ACA, they will no longer be subject to lifetime maximum payouts from insurance companies.  For parents helping them transition to an adult life and the responsibility for their own health insurance, the ACA allows parents to cover children on their insurance until they turn 26.  Things are much better with the ACA, but even with the ACA, we’ve got a long way to go in providing equitable health care in the United States.  With that as background, here is the not-so-hypothetical story of Alex, Olivia, and Nate and their battle with Type-1 diabetes…and the American health care system.

“Alex”

Alex is a young teenager who was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes at a very young age.  His family would be considered  upper-middle class. Alex’s family has a very good, comprehensive health care plan, with insurance provided through one of Alex’s parents. Alex has had access to some of the best care a young diabetic can have. For over 10 years, Alex has had an insulin pump, a small device that holds a reservoir of insulin.  His pump automatically provides a steady stream of insulin all day long (the “basal” insulin), just as the body normally does, to try to keep blood sugars stable. His pump also makes it easy to administer insulin at meals.  He simply estimates how many carbs he’s eating, enters that number in the pump, and the pump provides the proper amount of insulin required to process the sugars in that meal. Alex checks his blood sugar very often (8-10 times a day), but was still occasionally experiencing both hyperglycemic and hypoglycemic events.  In addition to his pump, his family pursued a “continuous glucose sensor” (CGM), another medical device that automatically checks his blood sugars every 5 minutes.  The CGM even has a cell phone app, where his parents are alerted on their cell phones if his blood sugars need attention. He no longer faces the dangerous “nighttime lows”, a hypoglycemic event that may occur at night when a patient is asleep and less able to respond. If Alex’s blood sugars start to drop anywhere close to dangerous levels, an alarm will alert both him and his parents that action is needed.  Alex’s A1C levels have typically been right around 7.0, just a bit above that of a “normal” person.  With the new CGM, it’s likely that will go down even further.  Alex’s care is expensive.  The insulin pump and the CGM both costs thousands of dollars, as do the yearly supplies that support those devices.  Along with the costs of insulin, doctor visits each month, and other supplies, Alex’s health care costs without insurance would be in the 10s of thousands of dollars per year.  Even with what’s considered quite good insurance, his parents pay a lot out of pocket each year for the pump, CGM, and supplies. They can afford it, however, and Alex’s long-term prognosis and risk of complications is much lower than Olivia’s or Nate’s.

“Olivia”

Olivia is a pre-teen who has had diabetes for about 5 years.  Her family would be considered middle-class, perhaps lower middle class. Olivia’s family has a health care option through a parent’s employer, with coverage that isn’t nearly as good as what is provided by Alex’s insurance. Olivia’s family would like a better insurance plan, but their income is high enough that they’re not eligible for subsidies under the ACA that might enable them to “shop around” and find better insurance.  Olivia’s insurer covers only part of the costs of an insulin pump, and does not cover costs for a CGM.  Olivia’s family cannot afford the out-of-pocket costs that would be required to get an insulin pump, so Olivia does not have an insulin pump, or a CGM.  Her insulin control relies on frequent injections, with a daily “long-acting” insulin that is meant to mimic the basal insulin (the steady, day-long drip) provided by Alex’s pump, and “short-acting” insulin that is given with every meal.  Olivia doesn’t like needles, but as a young diabetic, she’s learned to tolerate them. Olivia knows Alex, and marvels at his pump, which frees Alex from the 4-6 daily injections that Olivia gets.  Olivia checks her blood sugar as frequently as Alex, 8-10 times per day, which helps keep her blood sugars under control.  She can respond when blood sugars are low or high, but it means another injection (for high blood sugars).  Without a CGM, she’s more subject to unnoticed hypoglycemic or hyperglycemic events.  Unlike Alex, who “feels” when his blood sugar is low, Olivia has no such physical feelings or warning signs when her blood sugars go low.  She recently was hospitalized after a severe, nighttime hypoglycemic event, when extremely low blood sugar results in seizure and a short period of unconciousness.  With her diligence in checking blood sugars, however, those events are minimized. Her A1C is significantly higher than Alex’s, usually around 8.0 to 8.5.  Compared to Alex, she’s thus not only at risk of unnoticed high or low blood sugar events, she’s also more likely to develop longer-term complications such as heart disease, kidney failure, or eye disease.

“Nate”

Nate is a teenager who was diagnosed with diabetes about 10 years ago.  He lives in a single-family home, a good home with a very loving mother, but paying the bills is a struggle.  The only health insurance available to Nate’s family prior to the ACA was a “catastrophic care” policy with very high deductibles and much poorer coverage than either Alex or Olivia receive.   After Nate was diagnosed, the economic struggles meant pinching pennies on health care. It even meant pinching pennies on the administration of insulin. At difficult times, Nate’s family would avoid carbohydrate-laden meals, in order to save money on the amount of insulin needed to treat Nate. Visits to the endocrinologist were few and far between, as Nate’s mother couldn’t afford them.  Nate’s blood sugar control was very poor prior to the ACA, with A1C’s typically over 10.  Under the ACA, subsidies are available, including both tax credits and cost sharing subsidies, that ensure a plan on the ACA marketplace can’t cost more than 9.5% of a family’s income. After the ACA, Nate’s mother enrolled in a marketplace plan and obtained a health care plan that was much better than the poor health care option provided through her employer.  However, Nate’s insurance is similar to Olivia’s, in that only partial costs of an insulin pump would be covered, and a CGM is not covered.  Nate’s mother cannot come close to paying the out-of-pocket costs that would be required for an insulin pump. Nate relies on shots much like Olivia does.  Nate’s mother is extremely thankful for the availability of ACA coverage, as without it, even the cost of insulin would have been very difficult for her to pay under her employer’s poor, catastrophic coverage insurance.  However, the family still struggles with everyday costs, including costs of health care. With the only available, affordable ACA plan, coverage is worse than either Olivia’s or Alex’s.  Nate’s situation has improved, but his family is still forced to make extremely difficult healthcare decisions, regarding both health care and other, every-day expenses.  With another sibling with asthma and other problems, covering health expenses is difficult even with the ACA and tax credits.  Visits to the doctor are fewer for Nate’s family than for Olivia’s and Alex’s. Blood sugar control has improved for Nate with the better insurance from the ACA, particularly as the family doesn’t feel the need to “scrimp” on insulin, yet Nate still has A1C levels that approach 10 at times.  Nate is at substantially higher risk of long-term complications than either Alex or Olivia.

Comparing Alex, Olivia, and Nate

Alex > Olivia > Nate.  That’s the situation in today’s health care system, where your level of care is directly related to your ability to pay.  With Type-1 diabetes, blood sugar control is LIFE.  There are tools available that assist a Type-1 diabetic in maintaining blood sugar control, but those tools are of no use if a family can’t afford them.

In all likelihood…Alex will outlive Olivia.  Olivia will outlive Nate.  It’s as simple as that, when blood sugar control is the key to a long, happy life for a diabetic.  Particularly a type-1.  It has NOTHING to do with the love of a family, or the desire to keep blood sugars under control.  The parents of Alex, Olivia, and Nate all love their children very much, and would do anything to keep them as healthy as possible.  It simply boils down to economics. Even if insurance provides some access to advanced treatment options, that’s useless if the family can’t afford co-payments or other fees required to get those advanced options.

The ACA is far from perfect, but also a much, much better situation than we had prior to the ACA. The ACA is a step in the right direction, but more is needed. Instead, we’re heading backwards.  The split between the “haves” and the “have nots” has never been more evident in the United States, and as the not-so-hypothetical case of Alex, Olivia, and Nate shows, that divide is also still clearly evident in how we dispense our health care.

A nerdy scientist’s assessment of risk – Tornadoes vs. Earthquakes

Tornado Risk map - Dakotas

Tornado risk map from the National Weather Service for July 17th, 2015. Sioux Falls was squarely within the 2% zone, meaning there was a 2% chance of a tornado being seen somewhere within 25 miles of your location. Somehow…we all survived.

While at a conference for work in Portland last week, my colleague and I had a nice supper with two USGS colleagues who work in Menlo Park, California and Seattle, Washington, respectively.  We had relayed the news that the night before, there was storm damage in the area, with straight line winds and tornadoes both causing damage.  The West Coast colleagues…oh…let’s just call them “Ben” and “Tamara”…were flabbergasted that we’d want to live in an area so prone to devastating storms.

Tonight, the National Weather Service put out the map I’m showing here, noting that parts of South Dakota had either a 5% or 2% chance of a tornado hitting somewhere within 25 miles of your location. Let’s do the math!  What are the odds of a tornado hitting YOUR exact location on a night like this, when tornadoes were indeed spotted?

An area with a radius of 25 miles is over 54 billion square feet of territory. What are the odds of a tornado hitting your bit of territory, with a 2% chance of one being seen somewhere in this area? The average tornado path is 4 miles, or 21,120 feet. Average width is 500 feet. The average damage path is 10.5 million square feet. Even if you’re in the highest probability area, 5% chance of one being seen relatively near, the chances of one hitting YOUR chunk of territory…0.0010%. For the 2% chance of a tornado near you, the odds are 0.0004% it will strike your exact location.

Without Warning - Oregon Cascadia earthquake Comic

An actual comic-like booklet put out by the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. Yes, West Coasters…you’re in imminent danger of being swallowed whole by a massive earthquake. Tornadoes in the Plains? They’re nothing in comparison.

Just a guess…but we probably have chances similar to this only like 4-5 times a year. If you just use the same strike probability assumptions, you thus only have, likely at absolute most, a 0.0050% chance of a tornado hitting your location in a given year.

That’s an average of about one hit on your exact location every 20,000 years. Most tornadoes are weak F0 or F1, so even a hit might not be that bad.

Now, let’s reconsider the situation for my colleagues living in California and Seattle.  This week the New Yorker ran a story about the upcoming massive Cascadia subduction zone earthquake that could hit, The story said on average, something similar to the massive 1700 earthquake thought to have hit the area occurs about once every 250 years.

Put it all together, and Seattle is 80X as likely to get walloped with a 9.0 earthquake as Sioux Falls is to get a direct hit from a tornado, and even a direct tornado hit in Sioux Falls is likely to be far, far, less damaging than any earthquake.

You are welcome, West Coast storm-haters.  I hope I have reassured you that is once again safe to visit us in stormy Sioux Falls.  🙂

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