Flying back and forth between Albuquerque, NM and Camano Island, WA I have been thinking about how the Pacific Northwest and the Desert Southwest are alike.
By the time the clouds that shroud the Northwest coast thin out and disappear, you may already be over the vast region of the West that is high desert, canyon country or mountainous.
The green on the ground visible from cruising altitude might be in the form of polka dots, round farm plots irrigated through a radial arm that might be a hundred feet long on wheels circling a central pipe from which water is pumped out.
Where they don't irrigate, you see yellowish or tan or red brown dirt. Bunch grass or sagebrush might be growing there that is naturally spread out thin because of scarce moisture. When you walk there it is mostly on dry dusty soil. This is probably near Farmington, in northwest NM at about 30,000 feet.
Driving highways across these distances in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona or Texas one is struck by the hugeness of the open land that humans can find no use for, save to get across going at high speed with AC on, haunted vaguely by the bleached bones of European pioneers who struggled across the desert vastness on foot and who didn't make it. We swig our bottled water and keep our gas tank topped off.
There are farmers in places like South Texas who might have to take a flame thrower out and, in 100 degree heat, burn needles off of cactus plants so cattle might have something to forage on. "Folks," said one such rancher in Texas, "When there ain't no water, there just ain't no water."
He was addressing a meeting in farm and ranch country outside Austin, to establish an aquifer conservation district in the late '80s. A sheriff's deputy was actually hired to check guns at the door. The long held view that, what was on or under one's land was no one else's "bidness," was giving way to resource conservation as a common interest, but not easily.
In Arizona and New Mexico, development and growth has been promoted in the past by promoting a romance of the West, dismissing any risk in order to make something happen. More recently, however, large cities like Tucson and Phoenix and Albuquerque have engaged in large scale, billion dollar infrastructure projects to harness water for their populations from rivers. There still is a limitation to how many people might be able to move there in the future. There is the prospect that global warming might mean a permanently hotter and drier climate where it is already hot and dry. That may well translate into more people in the NW.
This is from the edge of an arroyo along Irving Blvd on Albuquerque's West Mesa, looking west to the current edge of town.
Camano Island has a limited aquifer source for drinking water underneath it, not unlike communities that are islands in oceans of dry land. It is a small place, about 30,000 acres in all and about 20 miles long and 6 miles wide at its widest point. Currently about 15,000 people live there. This is Utsaladdy Point, the first place on the island to become settled, as a result of the first logging and sawmill operation located there in the 1850s.
Camano Island is one of those places that is a microcosm of the whole world, with its population growing over the decades into more and more acreage against a resource base that is less expansive than it used to seem. In that respect places like Camano Island and places like Albuquerque have a lot in common.
That is why efforts to monitor the aquifer water that supplies the island, and the effort to conserve land for public use by future generations are so important now. The Conservation Futures Fund that Island County maintains is truly a great local program. It provides a process by which citizens work together to establish what is most of value and worth preserving. They then put serious and well deliberated planning into effect with both public and private funds.
Back in the wooded acreages all over the NW, large Western Cedar stumps can still be seen that have springboard notches. Those trees were cut in the twenties and thirties or maybe before. They were big trees, bigger than anything growing now. They attained their size over hundreds of years of growth. They could live to 1500 years or longer.
In the 1920s the last of the great old growth trees was cut down on Camano. The loggers that made their living from tree cutting and sawmill operation on the island largely went bankrupt or became dairy farmers or moved on after the resource was gone. Eight and a half million logs supposedly came off the island. Lots of money was made. Houses across the US were built with cedar shakes from these trees. Things as diverse as hope chests and coffins were made of this wood that resists deterioration. San Francisco was rebuilt after the earthquake with Northwest timber.
Now the acreages with pleasant meadow-like hillsides are home sites, some of which are imposing and worth millions.
Is the destiny of places like Camano Island to be exclusive and expensive because there is a limit to how many homes can be developed?
Very likely the Northwest as a region will continue to grow and population density will have its effect on land values as this process unfolds. People are moving away from the Southwest and California, as they have been for years, because the NW has water in abundance and a climate that is much cooler in the summer. As an added bonus, there are a great many beauty spots to visit up and down the Pacific Coast.
That is one prominent reason that there are already some six million people living in a relatively small area between the Sierra Cascades and the Pacific, in the Puget Sound area and from roughly Portland, OR in the south to the northern Vancouver, B.C.
Water isn't unlimited even in the NW where it rains a fair amount and where evaporation is prevented much of the time when it isn't raining by its grey wooly blanket cloud cover.
But any local microcosm reflects the entire planetary situation. 7 bllion people, with another billion added about every dozen years or so requires that we think in a new way. This isn't like the unlimited landscapes that Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey's characters roamed in. The future requires a lot of new thinking about how to cope as a huge population with common interests that need our most serious abilities and efforts.
It does not matter if you live in a desert community, large or small, or in the mountains, in a plains region, on the coast - or on an island. We all share the same set of problems that we can't wish away and can't escape.
As Sartre once observed, "No one gets out of here alive."
As time goes by, the Conservation Futures programs in communities across the US and indeed, across the face of the earth will continue to become more and more important.
This bench. looking northeast to Mount Baker, is on a trail running along Iverson Spit on Port Susan Bay, in a park and estuary preserve on Camano Island's east shore that was built with public and private partnership made possible through both funding and efforts by the Island County Conservation Futures Fund.
This is a good place to contemplate such things as the similarities between the Desert Southwest and the Pacific Northwest.