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Where have you gone, Johnny Horizon

Column by Hal Walter

Land Use – February 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

TO THE WEST OF MY HOUSE stands a behemoth dead ponderosa pine. A thing of gnarly beauty, this tree is the birthplace of countless owls, woodpeckers, swallows and other birds each spring. It is a hunting perch for redtailed hawks, and a twisted ornament on the horizon of more scandalously beautiful sunsets than I can remember.

This tree is also a potential source of many BTUs. But I choose instead to keep it as an upright wildlife refuge, an energy reserve that would be tapped only under the most dire circumstances, like after I’d already burned the furniture and the fir siding off my house.

The ponderosa can be seen from two west-facing windows to either side of my woodstove, over which resides a two-person cross-cut saw to remind me of where heat really comes from. After all, it is at best a superstition that heat comes from a dial on the wall.

For more than 15 years now I have heated almost solely with wood.

But my firewood obsession started at a much younger age. The saw on my wall was a major purchase made by my stepfather during the energy crisis of the early 70s. I was not yet a teenager and my mom had recently remarried. We were living in Las Vegas where my new dad was stationed with the Bureau of Land Management. The big BLM public relations effort then was a character named “Johnny Horizon,” a ranger cloned from the forest service’s Smokey Bear. Johnny’s motto was emblazoned on freebie garbage sacks: “This land is your land. Keep it clean!”

It was during this period that oil supplies grew short, lines for gasoline suddenly formed, and the entire nation went on daylight savings time to conserve energy. In the newly formed Walter household, the electric toothbrush and mixer went to the landfill, along with my stepdad’s electric razor. The dial on the wall was turned to low.

In the den was a big brick fireplace, and in this we burned wood hauled on weekends from public land in the surrounding foothills. On weekends we would load up the old Dodge pickup and head for these hills, where we always abided by Johnny Horizon’s rules. There we would reliably find a large piñon pine which would be cut into truck-bed lengths with the crosscut saw. These would be hauled home for further rendering into fireplace lengths, and the resulting incense-like smoke would cause much discussion in a neighborhood where swimming pools were more common than fireplaces.

After two years in Vegas, we moved to Washington, D.C. Outside the Capital Beltway we burned hardwoods for supplemental heat. A chainsaw was added to the Walter family tool arsenal. Three years later we packed up and headed back West, where energy was once again a major focus.

Wallace Stegner often maintained that water is the defining environmental factor in the West. But what about coal, oil, gas?

We landed in Craig, Colo., during the energy boom of the late 70s.

It was the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. A dragline ripped coal from the ridge to the south in full view of town.

Oil and gas exploration crews drilled the open plateaus northwest towards the Wyoming and Utah borders. In this boomtown environment there was not a single house available to rent or to buy, so our family lived for a month in a motel. When at last a house became available it was ironically located across the street from BLM headquarters. We could also see the coal dragline from the living room window. The house had a fireplace and we supplemented the home heat with piñon and ponderosa from neighboring public lands.

Of course, energy projects that explored the production of oil from shale and gasoline from coal turned out to be a boondoggle, requiring more energy to produce than the end result could actually generate, and more water than your average Denver-sized city uses. Parachute, Colo., once the epicenter of the oilshale boom, is now marketed by real-estate developers as a makeshift “resort” for retirees.

I went away to college in Boulder in 1978, and with the exception of camping trips, I didn’t burn another stick of wood until I bought my own house in Wetmore in 1984. But with this much emotional energy baggage, it’s easy to see how I view heat from a dial on the wall as a superstition and how, as soon as I became a homeowner, firewood became an obsession. I inherited the crosscut saw from my parents and set about heating my home with wood cut by hand. Then later, perhaps fearing they had created a monster, my parents handed down the chainsaw.

THE PROBLEM is that while heat doesn’t come from a dial, it doesn’t come from a chainsaw either. My heat comes from wood, which comes from the woods. There’s no shortage of wood in the woods, but rather a shortage of woods where cutting is allowed. Thus my illusion of self-sufficiency when it comes to home heating is also merely a superstition.

This winter, thanks to the generosity of my neighbors Will and Paula, I have been heating with aspen cut from their property. This source of wood is nearby, and the aspen is perfectly dry-cured and burns hotly.

When I run low on fuel I can merely take an hour and cut another truckload. I am also helping to reduce the fire hazard on Will and Paula’s property.

But aspen also burns very quickly. For the colder nights I longed for some longer-burning piñon pine or juniper wood, and began to notice dead scrub pines along roads on public lands. Finally I called the BLM, thinking that in light of the devastating forest-fire season last summer, that perhaps some wood-cutting outside of the usual seasons and areas might be allowed by special permit.

Oh, was I ever wrong. While there are some special permits being issued for cutting beetle-killed ponderosa pine on public lands where it is deemed to be a fire hazard to adjacent private property, the random cutting of a dead piñon tree or two next to an existing road was coloring a little too far outside the bureaucratic lines for the BLM. I was encouraged to call back when the public firewood season opens in June, and assured that some piñon cutting areas would be designated, maybe even the ones I had just pointed out.

Now if I had been a representative from Exxon or BP Amoco and just happened to own a team of stumpbroke senators and representatives, and had a ridiculous proposal to extract petroleum from piñon pulp, I might have been given carte blanche to clear-cut the entire mostly BLM-controlled elbow of the Arkansas River from Buena Vista to Cañon City. Is this any more outrageous than the new Interior Department plot to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last remaining 5% of Alaska’s North Slope that is off-limits to oil drilling? If drilled, some say this oil would take years to get to our gas tanks and would never supply more than 2% of our needs.

[The Walter Wildlife Refuge]

MEANWHILE, alternative energy sources such as solar- and wind-generated electricity are dismissed as “unreliable.” All the signs of a new energy crisis are upon us. As we debate drilling for these minuscule amounts of oil in the Arctic, gasoline prices are near an all-time high, home-heating costs have skyrocketed, and the Colorado Legislature is debating assistance for low-income families hit hard by these increases. I recently had to refill my barbecue’s propane tank and it cost nearly twice as much as it did last summer. The attendant who filled the bottle said the price of propane was so high that he was going to pull out his new propane fireplace and reinstall his old woodstove. I hope he can find some wood.

In the meantime, I’ll guard my little wildlife refuge of a dead ponderosa and wonder whatever happened to Johnny Horizon. He seemed like such a sensible land manager. He reinforced that the land was ours. He let us cut firewood on our land and urged us to take care of the land.

Was he demoted or forced into early retirement for having such a radical environmental agenda? An Internet search for Johnny Horizon brings up an obscure non-BLM-connected website in Indiana, but I wouldn’t look for him to have any input about land-use issues in the West any time soon — at least not in the next four years.

Hal Walter burns and writes from a 35-acre burro ranch near Westcliffe.