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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.

Originally posted to PacNW Kossacks on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 03:04 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks so much for your photos (10+ / 0-)

    and the diary.  My summer place while on leave looks at Mt Baker from the north.  (On retirement I'll be there permanently!)  Flying from China every year to WA, I too look at the contrasts and similarities between places.  Here the pollution is so thick and so bad, just walking outside makes me cough and my eyes water.  But in WA, the air is so clear and the sights so beautiful, well, my eyes water but for different, and much better, reasons.

    America needs a UNION NEWS channel. We (unions) have the money, we have the talent. Don't buy 30 second time slots on corporate media, union leaders; fund your own cable news channel and tell the real story 24/7/365

    by monkeybrainpolitics on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 03:20:03 PM PDT

  •  It's kinda an open secret (11+ / 0-)

    Winters in the maritime Pacific NW as dismal, hell yeah; but compared to winters in most of the rest of the country, tolerable.

    Summers are the reason why we put up with the "dismallity"....

    I don't bitch about the winter rains. Snow in the Cascades is money in the bank; summer and fall water for drinking, irrigation and power.

    "What have you done for me, lately?" ~ Lady Liberty

    by ozsea1 on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 03:26:02 PM PDT

  •  Yes, I know how climate change will affect us (11+ / 0-)

    instability is the watchword.

    "What have you done for me, lately?" ~ Lady Liberty

    by ozsea1 on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 03:47:42 PM PDT

  •  Pine Beetles are enjoying the warmer weather (7+ / 0-)

    from Mexico to Canada.  Reproduction rates are doubling and unaffected timber is dwindling.  We've had an unusually warm and dry winter and spring here.  It scares me to think of the western wildfire potential this year.

    I play for keeps. Kindness, Equality, Enlightenment, Peace, and Sustainability.

    by QDMacaw on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 07:21:34 PM PDT

  •  Growth mantra in the SW is constantly (5+ / 0-)

    being repeated by newcomers to NM. The Natives just shake their heads. Real N M lack that Passion to make N M like every other place in America. It is metastatic cancer. Growth at all cost and non differentiation.

    •  This could be another similarity to explore (6+ / 0-)

      THe Pacific Northwest culture and heritage stem from a laid back, plaid wearing past, with overlays of money and ambition that keep coming like waves.  Growth since the 1950s has been astronomical, from other states and internationally.  

      NM is also growing, mainly because it has a milder climate than Texas, Arizona or points north like Minnesota or Kansas or the Rust Belt and is a lower cost place to retire to.  The rooftops in the west mesa photo above were not there 20 years ago.  

      Even the progressives in the legislature seem to think that the budget issues of the past few years will ultimately be solved by growth and a tax base increased by it.  

      hope that the idiots who have no constructive and creative solutions but only look to tear down will not win the day.

      by Stuart Heady on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 08:57:54 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  As I run on my treadmill, (7+ / 0-)

    I have two amazing detailed art posters I often  stare at (the tv is usually left turned off): the Sonoran desert, and the Olympic rain forest. In between, I can look out of the window of my current home in NoCal, although I still have one Goretex hiking boot firmly planted in Western WA.

    To the unitiatiated, the ecosystems from the bottom of Death Valley to the top of Wheeler Peak to the backcountry of Yellowstone to Kenai Peninsula must seem so incredibly disparate.  But in the West, I simply see tension between humans and nature, a climate that seems hell bent on teaching a lesson and humans too stubborn to learn it, men and women who demand to live next to forest but who are unwilling to tolerate bears, wolves, and mountain lions, and water resources that never seem to be enough.

    Everywhere I have lived, whether in a structure or just temporarily in a 1.5 lb tent that i carried on my back or in a sleeping bag under the stars, I have been keenly aware that we have been given an extraordinary gift.

    And I wondered how others couldn't see that too, and could not see that all that hangs by a thread.

    Thank you for your diary and for reminding us that others do see the gift that we have been given.

    © grover

    So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

    by grover on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 10:35:59 PM PDT

  •  Lucky to have some of the best water on Widbey Is. (4+ / 0-)

    Brown lawns are the norm for most here.

    Republicans take care of big money, for big money takes care of them ~ Will Rogers

    by Lefty Coaster on Mon Apr 23, 2012 at 12:51:10 AM PDT

  •  We had a beach cabin on Utsaladdy Bay for a number (4+ / 0-)

    of years, on Gerde Road, when our children were young.  Sold it to help pay their college expenses and it was torn down and replaced with a McMansion.  Camano Island is a beautiful place but has changed too fast.  Lots of commuters to Everett and Seattle, a couple of mega-churches and the right-wing politics of exurbia. The last couple of summers we have spent a few days with our grandsons at Cama Beach State Park.  Best thing that has happened to Camano in a long time.  Good luck and my best wishes to you with Island County Conservation Futures Fund.  

    Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Republican. But I repeat myself. Harry Truman

    by ratcityreprobate on Mon Apr 23, 2012 at 04:58:06 AM PDT

  •  Lake Whatcom........ (3+ / 0-)

    Water is seemingly abundant for many in the PNW, yet as the management of Lake Whatcom clearly shows, the need for education, preservation, and compliance are increasingly important.

    Over 85,000 people rely on Lake Whatcom as a drinking water source yet.......

    In addition to providing drinking water, the lake is used for boating, swimming, fishing and other activities.  About 80% of the watershed is comprised of forestlands, largely surrounding sub-basin 3.  There are approximately 5,000 homes currently in the watershed.  High-density development and development potential exists around sub-basins 1 and 2.  The major residential development around sub-basin 3 is Sudden Valley, a private community that has about 1,700 homes with the potential for more.

    The Lake Whatcom Watershed Management, News, Information, and Resources site has more information.

    Love is the lasting legacy of our lives

    by princesspat on Mon Apr 23, 2012 at 07:49:49 AM PDT

  •  I was out on the Elwha on the Olympic Penninsula (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    foresterbob, wonmug

    last weekend.  We started out at the mouth, seeing the incredible silt plume entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the reservoirs of the two dams being removed upstream.  Then we went to get a bird's-eye view of what little is left of the lower Elwha Dam, before climbing higher to peer through the heavy forest of what we could see of the progress on removing the upper Glines Canyon Dam.  We finished Sunday on a glorious day at Hurricane Ridge, seeing the upper reaches of the Elwha as is rises to it's source near Mt. Barnes.

    Water is a prime resource for us here in the PNW, as it a vital life giver in the SW.  Wallace Stegner talked about the impact of the advent of irrigation in the arid west in his book "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West", and what a folly it is for us to think that there is actually enough water there to go around.  I'm afraid we'll actually learn that the hard way, and sooner rather than later.

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