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What the Devil won't tell you

Forget faux crisis of immigration; westward migration caused dangerous problems we're ignoring

Abandoned mines & overstocked forests threaten life & limb without the xenophobic trigger

Please answer me this: If the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Sioux tribes had bundled their resources and built a wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border, would that have stopped U.S. westward migration?

Never mind the cavalry. Consider that during the California Gold Rush, the trip across the West was so hostile and dangerous that 49ers took ships from eastern ports down to Panama, battled snakes and malaria crossing the isthmus, grabbed another ship and sailed north to San Francisco.

The West provided enormous economic opportunity to individuals and so all bets were off, except at saloons, of course.

The anti-immigration group FAIR tracks the carnage wrought nationwide by illegal immigrants. It’s reported five illegal immigrants convicted of murder since 2003. Three Arizonans have died in abandoned mines since 2007. The Yarnell Fire killed 19 Prescott firefighters in a matter of moments back in 2013.

And Americans are still dying as a result of our deadly legacy. (I hear those of you saying these deaths are separate and apart from the slaughter of the indigenous people). 

But we are all here – out West – legally, right? Not according to Thomas Jefferson and more on that later.

Paychecks with $0.00 went out to federal workers on Friday as President Donald Trump demands a $5.7 billion wall as a monument to his personal neuroses. So the government shutdown continues.

I just find it fascinating what we choose to care about and by what proportion. Abandoned mines are a deadly hazard and legacy of our ancestral migration. We don’t do squat about it. Manifest Destiny helped turn the forests into fire factories but that issue doesn’t get people elected. Mines aren’t brown, I guess. And fires no hables Español.

Tom and Jerry vs. the desert.

As much as it pains me to say as a former University of Arizona journalism alum and former faculty member, Arizona State University’s Cronkite News Service did a great package on the state’s abandoned mines published here on TucsonSentinel.com. It included bats and snake whackings.

The Arizona Mine Inspector's Office is the lead agency in identifying and closing those mines. That office has hired just two guys – I swear to God named Tom and Jerry – to scout, identify and fence off the 100,000 abandoned mines in the deserts of our fair state. Actually sealing them is too expensive to even think about.

The estimate of how many forgotten holes litter our mountains and valleys is based on mining patent records dating back to early northern European settlement in what would become Arizona. It does not include mines dug by the Spanish or the tribes.

Jerry Tyra and Tom White have found 5,700 of them since 2007.

They are the only two inspectors searching the whole freaking state for those mines that come in at roughly one per square mile. The Legislature has budgeted $200,000 to mitigate this hazard.

Yet Arizona has spent $80 million over the last three years on Gov. Doug Ducey’s tough-sounding "Border Strike Force" to interdict drugs that now roll down highways no longer patrolled by the Department of Public Safety. It’s busy striking the border.

Arizona is among the ground zeros for undocumented traffic. The state leads the nation in abandoned mines and yet these threats to life and limb warrant hardly any resources by comparison.

Sometimes large numbers can seem benignly similar – 200,000 vs 5.7 billion – just words on a screen. A 200,000-mile journey through space will get you to almost to the moon. A 5.7 billion-mile trek will get you twice as far from the sun as Pluto. Even that’s kinda big. If 200,000 is represented by a single human stride of say 2.5 feet, one step won’t get you to the remote control but 5.7 billion steps will take you the length of Interstate 10 about 175 times.

Welfare miners

Congress passed a law in 1872 to encourage Easterners to prospect out West. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law and allowed anyone over the age of 18 to patent a mining claim on federal land for $5. That law, and same low price, remains in effect today.

The whole idea was to appeal to people’s sense of getting rich quick, with a lucky strike of gold or silver because the feds set aside socialized land for them to search for paydirt. They would go West and grow with the nation, to invoke Horace Greeley. The natural resources in this part of the world would create their own industry.

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So mines were dug from the earth and if no precious metals were found, abandoned. The words “remediation” or “reclamation” were not part of the regulatory vocabulary back in the day. So it’s up to taxpayers today to subsidize the costs back then.

We just don’t wanna. So we pay next to nothing to do the job finding these holes in the ground – some 900 feet deep.


Another resource tapped for a prosperous West was timber.

My second major story as a journalist involved forest health and Professor Wallace Covington up at Northern Arizona University, who was one of the leading fire ecologists in the world.

Prior to American Western settlement, the ponderosa pine forests (for example) were sparsely populated with large old-growth trees. Regular fires would clear out the grasses and the brush. Settlers cut down those big old trees and the forests were turned into crowded tree farms. Those forests created during the last century or so create fuel ladders — a process assisted greatly by fire suppression that prevented burning off of ground-level brush. Now the fires sweeping across the floors are climbing those ladders and getting into the crowns of the trees.

Fires then roar with all that air underneath them, as anyone knows who has ever barbecued. The raging flames create what new U.S. Forest Service Director Vicki Chritiansen calls “hurricane fires.”

One can almost see how Trump would have been given an explanation, stopped paying attention quickly after “forest floor” and decided he was an expert on the scene of the Camp Fire last year. The blaze killed 86 people.

“You gotta take care of the floors, y’know, the floors of the forest — very important. I was with the president of Finland and he said “we have a much different, uh, we’re a forest nation, he called it a ‘forest nation.’ And they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don’t’ have any problem. And when they do it’s a very small problem.”

Let’s start with the idea that Helsinki’s average summer rainfall is 10 times that of Los Angeles and the rest of the year it’s winter in Finland. Therefor it’s probably not a candidate for rampaging forest fires.

Donald Trump this week pledged to shut off Federal Emergency Management Assistance to California unless it conforms to his wishes, or more likely, timber industry wishes.

The timber industry loves this line because they hear forests overstuffed with trees and think cha-ching. It’s not unreasonable. Mechanical thinning has been a part of the solution as forest rangers mark damaged, distressed or diseased trees to cut and loggers go find them.

However, environmentalists worry logging companies don’t want the 5-inch dog hair trees contributing to the fuel ladder. They want the old growth trees that tower over the top of it. Or they want all the trees.

Yet Trump does what Trump does. He’s taking hostages and demanding total capitulation. Typically he will settle for the tiniest wafer of a concession but California voters overwhelmingly reject Trump, so God only knows what he’ll do.

Congress just approved $2.3 billion that can be tapped to fight these fires and that's just a contingency fund for fires only. It's not an additional lump of change to help fix the problem up front. See, fires may move through neighborhoods. Immigrants move into neighborhoods.

My fellow illegals

The American West would be how much safer if the Kiowa just built the damned wall, right? Fewer catastrophic fires, less in the way of deep dark booby traps and not so much murder and mayhem brought to places like Phoenix and Denver. And the Kiowa would remain unslaughtered.

That brings us to how we all may just be illegal immigrants, constitutionally speaking.

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase. He bought the whole shebang from what would be New Orleans to Fargo and on out to Seattle for $15 million.

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One problem: He did it just 15 years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified and people weren’t at all convinced the government had the power to expand its boundaries. It wasn’t an enumerated power in the Constitution, so the government lacked the authority to carry it out, the argument went.

Jefferson for one, was so dubious of his authority to make the purchase that he drafted his own amendment to the Constitution to allow for the purchase of Louisiana. It was so narrowly tailored that it didn’t allow for states to be created or citizenship conferred on those living in the newly acquired territory north of Louisiana itself. Both would require – Jefferson argued – subsequent amendments:

Louisiana being in virtue of the Treaty &c incorporated with the U. States and being thereby a part of the Territory thereof, Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the same as fully and effectually as if the same had been at the time of the establishment of the Constitution a part of the Territory of the U. States: provided nevertheless that Congress shall not have power to erect or establish in that portion of Louisiana which is situated North of the latitude of (32) degrees any new state or territorial government nor to grant to any Citizen or citizens or other individual or individuals excepting Indians any right or title relative to any part of the said portion of Louisiana until a new amendment of the Constitution shall give that authority.

His Cabinet talked him out of sending it to Congress, which knew a smoking real estate deal when it saw one and raced to approve the purchase.

Still, Jefferson believed his purchase might require an amendment that was never ratified. No subsequent amendments were enshrined allowing for the Gadsden Purchase or Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. So would Thomas Jefferson say we are all here illegally because we are here unconstitutionally?

I'm talking to you, strict constructionists and ye olde originalists. Yes, the Constitution allows for the United States to enter treaties just as it allows Congress to pass laws. Does it allow the U.S. to create laws beyond the powers listed in the Constitution?

I guess we are because possession is nine-tenths of the law prescribed by the legal doctrine of We took it. It’s Ours. Bugger off.

I get it. Abandoned mines and forest fires are completely different from the immigration issue but the pair are a real threat we don't care that much about and another is barely a threat we can't stop talking about. I wonder why that is?

Meanwhile, if you see Tom White or Jerry Tyra, buy 'em a drink. It's lonely out there.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.

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Nicole Neri/Cronkite News

Abandoned-mine supervisor Jerry Tyra uses his own metric to determine how dangerous an abandoned mine is: Would he survive his wife’s tongue-lashing if he took the family there on a picnic?


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