Sunday, October 27, 2013

Having said all that...Carlsbad is different

At the beginning of October of this year, KLK's and my stars came together to make possible a last-minute trip to southeastern New Mexico to realize a long-standing plan to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park -- where untold hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats stream en masse out of the cave each dusk to spend the nighttime saving the world from mosquitoes (well, moths primarily ) -- and while there to explore the adjacent, and much less well known Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Our flights to El Paso were booked for October 4. On October 1, the government shut down, and all national parks along with it. We decided to make the best of it, vainly hoping Washington would see the light and switch it back on. So off we went.

The adventure proved entirely worthwhile even though the parks remained decidedly closed. This is not to say that we didn't greatly regret not getting into the parks, which looked so very inviting from the outside, and, off the beaten path as they are, who knows when we might have an opportunity to try again?
Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, road closed ahead.
We stayed in the small desert town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has all the potential to be a classic gateway town, with its foundation, and survival, related to, and dependent upon, the discovery of natural wonders of sufficient importance to ultimately receive national park designation. However, Carlsbad is a little different from, say, Gardiner, Montana (Yellowstone) or Springdale, Utah (Zion NP).  Founded in the late 19th century by European immigrants attracted by the availability of water from the Pecos River for irrigation, deposits  of potash and other commercially important minerals, and so-named because of the early tourist attraction of mineral springs reminiscent of those of Karlsbad in what is now the Czech Republic, Carlsbad has always had a life of its own, independent of the cave and Guadalupe Mountains not far beyond.
My paternal grandfather and his wife visiting the baths in the original Karlsbad, 1937
Nonetheless, the value of the cave as a natural treasure and tourist destination was recognized in the early 20th century. First declared a national monument (a sort of "national park lite") in 1923, and a national park just seven years later, the main attraction was the exceptionally large and beautiful cave itself. The bats were only latterly embraced as the most interesting and important feature of the park.

So why was it that some of the locals I spoke to during our brief stay were in fact unaware  that Carlsbad and Guadalupe Mountains were closed? Because in recent years, the presence of bounteous and easily extracted oil and gas deposits have overwhelmed many times over the importance of the national parks as drawers of economic activity to the area.

I know nearly nothing about the extraction of oil and gas, but the briefest of internet researches enlightened me about the richness of the Permian Basin where Carlsbad lies, more or less due South of Roswell on this map. Note please that this is the oil industry's idea of where the Permian basin is, not necessarily 100% overlapping with the scientific designation of the Permian Basin in North America. 
Map borrowed from Rigzone, but available from various sources
My appallingly rudimentary understanding of how oil is formed is that accumulated organic matter (animal and vegetable) is buried, and over eons ultimately compressed by layers of sediment and rock that either form, or slide over by subsidence and uplift, the remains until pressures, heat, and chemical reactions form petroleum hydrocarbons. The Permian Basin was once the Permian Sea, creating ideal conditions for the build-up of organic matter and silt, and, presto-change-o!: fuel for the internal combustion engine and many other purposes eons and eons later. Live Science has a better explanation of the process of oil formation; The Texas State Historical Association provides a good brief history of the  discovery and business of oil extraction in the Permian Basin.

Despoliation of the desert landscape and atmosphere is easily visible from the highway along the corridor from just north of the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns all the way to Roswell. 
I did my best to observe something about the relationship of the petroleum industry to the town of Carlsbad in the brief time we were there, starting when I made a reservations at our hotel. I inquired as to why the prices were unexpectedly high, and varied such that they were lowest over the weekend (when one might expect regular influxes of park visitors) and highest on Monday, the only weeknight of our stay. The answer was, "Oh, it's because travelers are here on business with the oil and mineral industries" during the work week: a tid-bit of evidence as to the unexpectedly minor impact of the national parks. 

There were no authorities around to chat with me, but I did start a conversation with a young man, also a guest in our hotel, who told me he was a geologist with the Dutch equivalent of the US Geological Survey, in town to meet with US Bureau of Land Management colleagues, who of course were furloughed and unable to do business. Yet another example of the economic impact of the government shut down, not just on Americans, but foreign partners in enterprise as well. His thing turned out to be fossils, which I take it are hints of the age of the formations in which they're found, perhaps informing conclusions about the likely presence of untapped oil or gas. While the conversation was interesting, I learned little about the matter of drilling for oil.

As the hotel was otherwise almost empty the first couple of mornings we were there, I befriended the lovely lady who attended the breakfast buffet (very good, and included in the price!). She clearly enjoyed our conversations and came out of the kitchen every day to say good-morning. She was of Mexican heritage (as is a very large fraction of the local populace) but spoke standard American English suggesting she was raised on this side of the border. Curious as to the local benefits of all this extraction, I asked her if there were good jobs to be had for the locals in the oil fields. She immediately answered, "Oh yes, there are lots and lots of good jobs around here, but the people can't keep them. They fail the drug tests!" She meant it sincerely. That was one of the saddest answers I could imagine.

So who is doing all the heavy lifting? Right on cue, as foretold by the rising price of a hotel night, on Monday the town filled up with roustabouts and roughnecks and swampers and technicians and truck drivers and riggers, men of all races, ages, sizes and descriptions, and a tough-looking woman or two, the kind you'd expect to see with their hardhats resting on the table next to their plates as we did at the Carlsbad China Dragon Buffet at our last dinner before heading back to Chicago the next morning.

They're not locals, so they must be commuters from elsewhere in the region, maybe El Paso 160 miles to the southwest, but within driving distance of the oil fields. One thing we did not see was any evidence of a residential building boom. Wise, as once the fields finally play out, there will be only the environmental clean-up work and the business of the national parks to sustain Carlsbad.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Oh, what a relief it is. And, how fascinating it was.

Barrier at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, October 8, 2013
I count myself was among the millions in this country who felt like a massive weight was lifted when our justly-beset politicians in Washington ended their game of brinkmanship and authorized appropriations to re-open the government -- at least for the near term -- and to restore functions critically important in one way or another to all segments of Americans society. These functions include payroll for civilians employed by the Department of Defense; yes, our uniformed services budget was authorized during what quickly became known as the "partial" shut-down, but hundreds of thousands of civilian Defense Department employees were furloughed. These civilians provide indispensable services to the military, including servicing and maintenance of machinery (like jet engines), medical care, IT services, the list goes on. Meaning, although our sailors, soldiers (but not our spies, to channel John le Carré), and pilots  were on the job, any sense of national security was utterly false, as most could not perform their full duties without the support of the civilian corps. Other halted government resources impacted, or would soon impact if further prolonged, the country's ability to track the spread of, and deploy interventions against, contagious disease outbreaks (SARS, bird flu, to name a couple); those dependent on unemployment compensation for income; support for food and nutrition programs for needy families, and early education programs for children such as Head Start; those needing services like Meals on Wheels for disadvantaged senior citizens; and the millions of people employed by government contractors (such as the company I work for) to pay their mortgages and feed their families and the ripple effects thereof. In other words, the shutdown sooner or later would have affected not only our most vulnerable citizens, but the rest of us too, all the way up the socioeconomic ladder. 

In spite of immediacy of these and countless other government supports and collaterals thereof, none were at the top of the sound-bite lists of closures. From the most benighted conservative to the most enlightened of liberal media outlets, the number one closure on every list was America's national parks. This caught me completely by surprise. No, it's not that I think I'm the only person who puts extremely high value on our parks (and national forests and monuments, shores and historic sites), it's that in times of personal and public disaster, alas, the parks are not likely to be savers of life and property.
Google search page header, October 1, 2013. (Thanks to Google for use of the image without formal permission.)
Having said that, one reason for their prominent place on the list (and in many subsequent discussions) may be that the parks are symbols of values that almost all Americans share: they represent our wide-open and fruitful lands, our sacred histories, and in many senses, our prosperity. Look at us, we are well fed and clothed, and employed and secure, and we're still able to set aside massive acreage "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." 
Yellowstone's barricaded Roosevelt Arch at North Entrance, "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People" writ in stone at the top. Even the elk seem puzzled by the closure. My thanks to Patty Bauchman for the use of her wonderful photo, "Barrier at Roosevelt Arch" October 5, 2013.
Another reason is that the national parks and related units are a subtle proxy for all the affected economic engines, unlikely though it is that most people would readily make that connection. Although government run, units of the Department of Interior (national parks, monuments, historic sites, shorelines) and the Department of Agriculture (national forests, grasslands, recreation areas) rely on concessionaires and other contractors to provide guest services -- lodging, gift and convenience shops, guided tours and transportation, food service, gas, and emergency medical services for instance -- plus road construction and maintenance, utilities, communications... The list of businesses required to service visitors on federal land is remarkable. When the government shutters the parks, the concessionaires and vendors get stop-work orders. When the concessionaires and vendors get stop-work orders, they lay off personnel.The domino effect on the economy is obvious and nearly immediate.

Just outside of most parks are gateway communities. Take Yellowstone, for instance, which has several adjacent communities that owe their existence, or if not their existence, their prosperity, to the park: Gardiner, Montana at North Entrance; the twin map-dot towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City, Montana at Northeast Entrance, and West Yellowstone, Montana to the west. Fifty miles beyond East Entrance is Cody, Wyoming, and just beyond South Entrance is the little tourist development of Flagg Ranch. These settlements are all about visitor amenities (museums, snow-mobile rental, guided tours), services (restaurants, lodging), and necessities (groceries, gas, medical care). Although not park service contractors, when the parks close, visitors cancel or divert and business activity is flat-lined.

There have been numerous studies of the benefits of national parks on the economy, and a variety of estimates on the negative effects of the shutdown -- all of them staggeringly large for an approximately 2-week period of downtime. The pundits who chose national parks to represent the immediate impact of the shutdown were right on the money.
Barrier at the entrance to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, October 4, 2013

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jesús and Margarita

Jesús and Margarita Cuevas, thanks for remembering me. I will always think of you with affection and admiration. Two lives well lived, may you rest together in peace now and forever.