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Updated: 3 days 13 hours ago

John Horning: My Last Lesson

Fri, 02/16/2024 - 07:00

Back when WildEarth Guardians was still called Forest Guardians, I had an experience that would shape me for many years to come.

John Horning, 2004. Credit: WildEarth Guardians

I was at a meeting in Espanola, New Mexico, hosted by the Bureau of Land Management. The purpose of the meeting was to address the poor condition of streams in northern New Mexico, caused by cows. By this point, I had attended dozens of public meetings and spoken at some. It was a part of the job I enjoyed.

But this meeting was different from the others. From the moment Sam Hitt (Guardians founder) and I walked into the room, I felt intense hostility. I sensed palpable anger in the gaze of dozens of people, most of them wearing cowboy hats. These “locals” saw me as the enemy– a self-righteous outsider who came to tell them how to live their lives.

For the first time in my work as a Guardian, I worried for my personal safety. For the first time, I realized that our work was not intrinsically safe– that, in many ways, we were engaged in a street fight. Most meaningful change is disruptive, and most people don’t like their lives being disrupted. People will fight back. They will come together in gangs to fight real change. Fortunately, I had a gang as well and it had a wonderful leader: Sam Hitt.

Sam Hitt. Credit: Sam Hitt

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.”

– W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Yeats was wrong. Sam was one of the best and he was full of passionate intensity.  His commitment to the cause provided an example I was eager to emulate. To borrow an overused phrase, “I would march on the gates of Hell with him.”

That wouldn’t be necessary because Hell came to us. It was around this time that a bomb was planted in our mailbox.  

It was hard, if not impossible, not to take this threat personally. After all, Guardians only had three or four employees then. While a bomb is undeniably terrible, it did provide two good things– clarity of purpose and solidarity. Things were less complicated then. There were no office politics, no internecine struggles. We were looking outward at our mission– to protect and restore the Wild. All the fights were outside our office walls, and the only purity test was a commitment to that mission. Of course, there were disagreements, but they were quickly resolved because we never doubted the good faith of the other person.

“This is a challenge; it is hard for all of us not to judge, because we tend to have a comfort zone… and see anything outside of this comfort zone as “totally wrong” or even “threatening.”  …While we all do a little judging here and there, mostly innocently and unconsciously, some do this routinely and in a way that creates feelings of anger, frustration, guilt and even rebelliousness against whomever does not fit this comfort zone…  Still others feel superior because they think that their comfort zone, the little box, is better than other people’s comfort zones.”

– Michelle Roya Rad, psychologist

People join gangs for identity, security, companionship, and a sense of belonging. I never thought about it until recently, but that is what I found at Guardians. Like most of you, my conscious motivation for joining WildEarth Guardians was the work– laboring on behalf of the environment, defending the animals and streams that move through it, the air above it, and the resources within it.  

WildEarth Guardians staff, 2010.

As I’ve grown older (and, hopefully, wiser) I see ways in which my work served more personal, more selfish goals. I felt a sense of belonging and companionship with like-minded people who shared the same values. And there was 30 years of security, of having a place to call home that was as much a home as my own.

And identity. What can be a more rewarding identity than knowing you’re one of the “good guys,” striving every day to protect the vulnerable from the powerful, to give voice to those who don’t have a voice? Guardians and my “comfort zone” were nearly identical. There were often dogs in the office because we are all animal lovers, there were always great conversations with very bright people who know more than me, and lots of vegetarians.  

When I became executive director, I naturally wanted to provide and protect the “comfort zones” of my colleagues. Equally important, I wanted to be what Sam Hitt was for me– an example of passionate commitment to our mission. As we grew from a handful of people to an organization ten times that size, the task of reconciling those two goals became more difficult. Internal forces diminished focusing outward at the mission and demanded more time looking at struggles between allies who forgot we were all working toward the same goal.

“The fundamental problem… is “the presence in every progressive organization of a small but very vocal fringe that views every problem as a sin.” This hyper-moralization of internal disputes spills over into real-world but otherwise routine disagreements, he continued: “It has become too easy for people to conflate disagreements about issues with matters of identity.”

– The New York Times, June 29, 2022

“Roxy’s Law,” which bans the use of traps, snares, and poisons on public lands, was signed into law on April 5, 2021.

I have always felt all our issues are somehow connected. The oppression of women, the marginalization of minorities, economic disparity, the abuse of animals– share some organizing principle that unites them all. For me, that organizing principle is defending the vulnerable from the powerful. I believe we have done a worthy job in that regard. Our advocacy, lawsuits and other endeavors have had a profound effect on the vulnerable– forests, wildlife, streams and many more entities without a voice that benefit from our hard work.

Still, we have a long way to go. Years ago, I wrote about purity tests and how our purity tests separate us from unlikely allies. Purity tests rarely serve a cause bigger than the satisfaction of the person who demands those tests– namely, reinforcing that person’s identity as a “good person.” I believe the measure of a good person is how effectively they defend the vulnerable, which I define as the animals and places that are assaulted daily. I cited polls that demonstrate most Americans agree with our policies but reject our methods.

For example, in 1991, 78% of Americans described themselves as environmentalists, today that number is 41%.  The answer to the question, “what happened” is complex.  However, we do know this…

“…poll after poll shows that about 70 percent favor public policies that control air, water and toxic waste pollution. What has happened is that the image of environmentalism and environmental advocacy itself has become entwined in the political polarization that has infected all aspects of American political life… Instead of seeking common ground from a shared love of nature… environmentalists took the sanctimonious high ground of moral superiority.

The Hill June 27, 2023

The hyper-moralization within an organization spills out to the real world. We cannot talk down to each other and we most certainly cannot talk down to those unlikely allies we desperately need to accomplish our mission. There simply are not enough people in “our gang” to change our nation’s course of ignoring vital environmental issues. 

While liberals might like to think of themselves as more open-minded, (recent studies show) they are no more tolerant of people unlike them than their conservative counterparts are… We like people similar to us. There’s a long line of research showing that we prefer members of our own group…”

From the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, Politico May 9, 2017

A crisis is a time when difficult decisions must be made. And sacrifice. Not just sacrifices regarding consumption, travel, and waste, but things that cut closer to the bone. Like our “comfort zones.” 

I confess, when I see a red MAGA hat, my instinct is to avoid, dismiss and distance. I have lots of little red flags that trigger me about other people. But, if we really want to be good, instead of just feeling good– we must do everything we can. That includes reaching out to people who make us uncomfortable and truly engage them, not with an eye to winning an argument or educating them, but with genuine curiosity. 

Little acts like this are how we win the long game, with an eye to decades instead of days. People listen to their friends– and the more friends each of you have, the more friends the wolf, the lesser prairie chicken, and countless other animals have. I believe we can move that 41% number back to 78% (and beyond) by showing the world open hearts, full of kindness rather than critique.

“…no one ever convinced anybody by logic; and even logicians use logic only as a source of income.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer

Decades ago, standing in that meeting in Espanola, I felt my hostility rise to meet those of the others. I saw them as the enemy– narrow-minded exploiters of the wild. They judged me and I judged them right back. I mentally armed myself with the facts and figures that would irrefutably prove my arguments.  

Then, something sublime happened. I felt love. Love of the land and streams for which I wanted to be a voice. Love for the world that allowed me to be their defender, their Guardian. And yes, love for the people who saw me as their enemy. Rather than deluge those people with science, I recited the names of the creeks whose sinuous, gentle banks I had come to know and love. Chihuahuenos…Canones…Polvadera.  

Rio Grande near Española, NM. Credit: Chaitanyo

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

– Confucious

I knew then that this was my passion. Advocating for streams, the arteries of life that nourish our thirsty land. As they listened, they could see how strongly I cared for something that was not merely a “data point” to me, but a place I loved as much as they did. In this way, they could see me as one of them, not an intellectual tourist motivated by a superior self-righteousness.

WildEarth Guardians staff, 2023. Credit: Kristen Burr

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

This is the idea I want to leave with you– the medium is the message. The message I aim to send is this, “Join us in our cause; help protect the vulnerable.” The medium is you.  

When you build walls instead of bridges, you serve the message, and our cause, poorly. It’s easy to find imperfections in other people, but only one goal is served that way– feeling better about ourselves. I confess I’ve sometimes lost sight of the real goal and took the shortcut to feeling good about myself by judging others. But the long road is where the greatest rewards await us. 

I am thinking now about setting goals fifty years into the future. I still believe we’re in a street fight– and that the more effective we become, the more resistance we will face. But I believe the best way to reach our goals is by leading with love, directed both outside our walls and within them. If we cannot find common ground with our colleagues, we will never find it with others.   

John Horning with his family, 2023. Credit: John Horning

Perhaps the chief characteristic of our times is how polarized we are. For many, it’s a natural response to lean into this feeling of opposition. By creating our own lines in the sand, we gain some small measure of control in a world that often seems out of control. I believe our collective struggle and our inner struggle are the same– to choose curiosity over judgment, to choose love over anger, and most of all, to choose courage over fear.  

We can look to nature to find models for this– especially from wolves.  They are courageous, absolutely focused on their goals, and they work together. 

Not long ago, I spent four days in the Gila with a family– a boy, a girl, and their parents. Despite our reassurances, the children were frightened by wolves. When I howled into the darkness and wolves began howling back, the kids were visibly afraid. However, by our last night – when we could hear howls coming from every direction – the fear of the children was tempered by something else… curiosity. Curiosity gave way to love, and love gave way to courage. The young girl said to her father, “the wolves are talking to each other… they’re talking to us as well.”

When I hear them howl, I like to imagine they were saying to me what I say to you now… “courage.” 

The post John Horning: My Last Lesson appeared first on WildEarth Guardians.

Categories: G3. Big Green

Another whirlwind legislative session underway in New Mexico

Tue, 01/30/2024 - 15:35

Winter in Santa Fe means snowstorms, slushy roads and, of course, nonstop action at the Roundhouse. The gavel swings through the dry desert air and BAM! The New Mexico Legislature is in session.

From now until the end of the session in mid-February, New Mexico lawmakers will mostly be wheeling and dealing over the state budget – and there could be major ramifications for our environment. We’re watching the session closely for bills that could impact New Mexico’s climate, wildlife and protected public lands. 

On the radar

One of the wildlife bills that we’re keeping an eye on is House Bill 178, which could do a lot of good for wildlife governance in the state.  Both the New Mexico Game Commission and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish have proven to be largely unresponsive to the New Mexico public and are not set up to protect all wildlife. HB 178 would go a long way towards fixing these problems and ensuring New Mexico can rely on a more modern wildlife agency to confront the biodiversity crisis and serve all New Mexicans. We support this legislation.

Speaking of biodiversity, the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico is one of the most biodiverse places left on Earth. 100 years ago this June, this wild heartland that is the Gila became the country’s very first designated Wilderness. We’re working with Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Catron, Grant & Socorro-28) to introduce a memorial honoring the historical, cultural and ecological legacy of the Gila Wilderness, and committing to doing what is needed to protect the Gila for the next century and beyond.

But it wouldn’t be a legislative session in New Mexico without some seriously bad legislation on the table. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to invest half a billion dollars in a misguided Strategic Water Supply, and it’s up to us to say “No!” The Governor is asking the legislature for $500 million to fast-track the “reuse” of toxic oil and gas wastewater, the safety of which is still unproven. This greenwashing plan will incentivize more climate-killing fossil fuels and put fragile freshwater resources at risk. We’re staunchly opposed and need your help exposing this false solution for what it really is – an industry handout that harms everyone else. 

As we fight to #KeepItInTheGround, we’re putting our support behind bills that pave the way for a clean energy future for New Mexico. The Local Solar Access Fund (HB 108) is a great bill spearheaded by our allies. HB 108 would set aside money for municipalities in New Mexico to hire the technical experts they need to study, plan, and access federal funding for solar projects in their area. It’s already made it through its first committee, but we’ll need your support to see it over the finish line!

Be an advocate!

Throughout the session, Guardians’ staff are at the Capitol advocating for our priorities, but we need your help. Citizen activists are critical for pushing good policies and defeating bad ones. From showing up in-person to calling your state senator or representative to writing a letter-to-the-editor, there are many fruitful ways to be a champion for New Mexico’s wildlife, wild places, and clean energy future. Join our New Mexico legislature rapid response team to stay in the loop with the fast and furious developments in the Roundhouse and get alerted when there’s an opportunity to take action and make a difference.

The post Another whirlwind legislative session underway in New Mexico appeared first on WildEarth Guardians.

Categories: G3. Big Green

Report: Grizzly bears returning to the wild Bitterroot

Tue, 01/09/2024 - 15:31

On the Idaho-Montana border lies a vast wild landscape. Millions of acres in size, this rugged and roadless country is prime grizzly bear territory. The problem? Instead of being home to a large, thriving population of bears, grizzlies are few and far between. This is the Bitterroot, or what grizzly conservationists call the Bitterroot Ecosystem Recovery Zone. 

The Bitterroot Ecosystem (pink zone on the map) is one of the critical recovery zones for grizzlies in the Northern Rockies. Map credit: USFWS

Scientists have long seen the Bitterroot as a key place for grizzly recovery because the area could support large populations of grizzly bears and help connect populations of grizzlies throughout the Northern Rockies. An exciting new report from the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Task Force and WildEarth Guardians shows that female grizzlies could occupy the Bitterroot within five years!

Specifically, the report estimates the contiguous Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population could move six miles into the Bitterroot within 5 years, and after 15 years move 18-25 miles to occupy more of the area. At that point dispersers ahead of the main population would move deeper into the Bitterroot. Full report can be found below.

But grizzly bears won’t make it to the Bitterroot without our help. Montana and Wyoming have formally petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone.

Even with existing protections, grizzly bears already confront relentless lethal threats – poaching, trapping, train collisions, climate change, road construction, logging, and more. Further, Montana’s proposed grizzly bear management plan and new state laws and regulations make it easier for people to trap or kill wandering bears. 

Grizzlies can’t return to the wild Bitterroot if they are shot, caught in a wolf trap, or run over by a freight train on the way there. To ensure grizzly bears can successfully reach the Bitterroot, the report finds it will be essential to keep Endangered Species Act protections in place. The report also recommends: 

  • Minimizing grizzly killings caused by people;
  • Constructing wildlife crossings over highways and rail lines at key locations to allow grizzlies safe passage across them; 
  • Expanding rules and public education to improve food storage and other attractants, like garbage, to avoid attracting bears to places where they could come into conflict with people; and
  • Reducing the number and density of roads that disturb grizzlies in core habitats and connectivity corridors.
Read the full report here. 

You can make a difference. Soon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife will be considering different options for restoring the Bitterroot grizzly bear population, and the public will have an opportunity to weigh in. We will need your voice. 

Sign up for our email list to stay up to date with our work protecting bears in the Northern Rockies, and get alerted when there are opportunities to take action for grizzlies and the wild places they call home. 

Grizzly bear and cub. Photo by Sam Parks.

The post Report: Grizzly bears returning to the wild Bitterroot appeared first on WildEarth Guardians.

Categories: G3. Big Green

Endangered encounters in the Grand Canyon

Wed, 12/27/2023 - 15:03

It’s a wonder to contemplate how the most majestic landscapes we have are also the most fragile. How we once considered damming the Colorado’s waters here in the heart of the Grand Canyon, and now we’re on its beaches using ground tarps to ferry the crumbs of our dinners to be washed downstream to protect the character of the canyon.

The Colorado is at once respected as an entity and pillaged as a resource. If you define the river as the whole self of its waters and the ecosystems it supports, then I’d say it’s capable of the sort of suffering and loss that we normally ascribe to more sentient beings. – Journal excerpt from my 22nd day in the Grand Canyon, at Surprise Canyon Camp (River Mile 249)


The Colorado River and the precious species that depend on its waters, silts, and sunlight are vulnerable to the rapid changes brought by human use and climate change. 

Water temperature in the Grand Canyon used to fluctuate from just above freezing to as high as 80°F, and it carried heavy loads of soil particles and sand. Once Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell, was completed in 1963, the water temperature shifted to hover around 46°F as the water sent through the canyon is pulled from the chilly depths of Lake Powell. The dam also blocks much of the sediment, rendering the iconically chocolate flows of the past now crystal clear for much of the year. 

The impacts of an engineered environment are felt throughout the canyon. Native wildlife evolved with the variable temperatures and muddy water of the old Colorado River, and the change to cold, clear water has had terrible consequences. 

Humpback Chub at confluence of the Little Colorado River and Colorado River. Photo courtesy: Joanna Zhang

Take the humpback chub, a silver and olive-colored fish named for the signature hump just behind its head. Young humpback chubs are no match for non-native predators like rainbow trout, which hunt by sight, something that humpback chubs didn’t have to worry about in the silty waters of the once free-flowing Colorado River. 

Colder waters have drastically reduced available spawning habitat for the humpback chub. Warmer pockets of the Colorado are located at the confluence of certain tributaries that bring in warmer water, such as where the Little Colorado River meets the mainstem Colorado around River Mile 62. 

The sharp declines in population landed the humpback chub a spot on the country’s first list of endangered species in 1968. With recovery management plans in place, humpback chub populations have improved somewhat since their initial listing in 1968, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2020 decision to delist their status from “endangered” to “threatened” remains controversial. As chronic overuse, decades of ongoing severe drought, and no long-term solutions in sight threatens to strangle the Colorado River, the humpback chub needs ESA protections now more than ever.  

Today, the largest remaining population of humpback chubs is found at the Colorado River’s confluence with the Little Colorado River, and we were fortunate enough to spot some chubs at this location on our trip. While we had our rafts tied to shore to have lunch above the confluence, a group of humpback chubs darted out from under the boats. To see this imperiled species for myself was deeply meaningful and, frankly, thrilling. For about fifteen minutes, the chubs swam under our tethered boats. One even boldly came right up to our feet at the water’s edge. 

My descent of the Colorado River coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, one of the most powerful legal tools we have to protect species from extinction. Witnessing the vibrant life and ancient rhythms of the canyon was a powerful reminder of why we must protect our natural heritage from being damned to extinction. To experience the promise and fragility of a living river, and to witness humpback chubs simply existing in their natural habitat…that is the essence of Guardians.

Joanna and Bri at the Little Colorado River

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Categories: G3. Big Green

Kari Gunderson, a voice for wilderness

Tue, 11/14/2023 - 10:30

Photo courtesy of Kari Gunderson

A teacher, retired wilderness ranger, and Montanan, Kari Gunderson is a force for nature. Her passion? Wilderness. For 35 years, Kari served as a wilderness ranger in the Mission Mountains Wilderness, located in the Swan Lake Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest. Now, she’s an educator mentoring the next generation of wilderness guardians in her recreation and wilderness management courses at University of Montana and Salish-Kootenai College on the Flathead Indian Reservation. 

Lizzy Pennock, Guardians’ Carnivore Coexistence Attorney, sat down with Kari for an inspiring conversation about living a life that honors and celebrates all that is wild. 

Lizzy Pennock: What is one piece of advice you’d offer to readers, from your own life experience?

Kari Gunderson: Always have a plan B. Stay flexible, and keep all of your options open. I learned this from my years as a recreation manager professor, where I did a lot of outdoor education with students. And now, in every class I teach, I tell my students: things rarely go as planned, whether it’s a big presentation or conference or you’re out in the wilderness—be ready to fly by the seat of your pants. And hey, sometimes that’s better anyways!

LP: Can you share a memorable moment or experience that solidified your commitment to wildlife and wild places in the West?

KG: I ran into two wolves when I was a wilderness ranger in the Mission Mountains here in Montana. All of a sudden I looked up and saw two huge canines 30 feet in front of me. At first I thought they were huskies, before I realized that couldn’t be true. There were no cars in the parking lot at the trailhead I just parked at. I was face to face with two wolves, and time froze. And then in an instant, they were gone.

LP: What gives you hope in the future of the West?

KG: Jane Goodall, and the future generation of leaders. Jane is such a powerful role model with a massive international audience. She has touched so many lives, and this is the same reason I have been a teacher all my life. There is such a power in teaching, and sharing with students the things I am passionate about and that are important. And that comes right back—I always make sure to listen, hear, and learn from the stories my students share with me. Teaching is an investment in the future generation. My students at the Salish Kootenai College might be future foresters, wildlife or fisheries biologists, and they may be the only person the public makes contact with who is in an official capacity like that. So I instill in them the skills to communicate with others about what we are doing and why it’s important. 

LP: Many people may want to get involved in environmental and wildlife conservation efforts but may not know where to start. What advice or suggestions do you have for individuals looking to make a meaningful difference in protecting the West and its wildlife?

KG: Field studies! For those who can, go on a hike or go camping, get in the wild and expand your comfort zone. Face fears of sharing our landscape with bears, wolves, and lions, and learn how to talk in depth about these things. The natural classroom is where we broaden our horizons. And we can also broaden our horizons by learning about nature at nature centers, natural history museums, natural history shows on television—whatever opportunity you have to connect with wildlife and wild places, take it! 

LP: And finally, do you have any recommendations on a great wilderness read? 

KG:

Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold  

Billionaire Wilderness:  The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West by Justin Farrell.

The Lost Journals of Sacajewea: A NOVEL by Debra Magpie Earling of the Bitterroot Salish

 

Mission Mountains Wilderness, Montana

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Categories: G3. Big Green

Speak up for Asha with a Letter to the Editor

Tue, 11/07/2023 - 12:36

Asha, the young, endangered Mexican gray wolf famous for her foray into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains last year, has once again journeyed to northern New Mexico. Asha is one of the critically endangered Mexican gray wolves who needs the freedom to roam. But unscientific policies prevent lobos from accessing habitat north of Interstate 40. 

This is wrong. Wolves need to be wild, and arbitrary boundaries like Interstate 40 make no sense to wolves or to scientific recovery.

You can help Asha and other Mexican gray wolves by writing a short, powerful letter to the editor and submitting it to your local paper. Writing a letter to the editor is a great way to catch the attention of public officials and elected representatives, and raise awareness in your community about the importance of recovering lobos, New Mexico’s iconic canine. 

We’ve made it easy for you to find a local or statewide paper and submit your short piece. Below are most of New Mexico’s newspapers that accept LTEs. And at the bottom are some talking points to consider.

Send your letter to the editor to one or more of these New Mexico newspapers: Talking points to include in your letter to the editor
  • The Mexican gray wolf, or lobo, is the most endangered gray wolf in North America and one of the most endangered carnivores in the world.

 

  • Lobos are critical to the environments of the desert southwest. They keep prey populations healthy and in balance, protect riparian and aquatic resources, and indicate the health of entire ecosystems.

 

  • Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham should rescind New Mexico’s opposition to recovering wolves north of Interstate 40. It is an outdated and backward policy that is not supported by science, and the clear actions of a pioneering female lobo named Asha.

 

  • Science shows that Mexican gray wolves need access to habitat in the Southern Rocky Mountains and Grand Canyon Ecosystem (both north of Interstate 40) to truly recover. Ideal habitats for Mexican wolves extend north of I-40, and it’s crucial to consider their need to follow natural corridors and establish sub-populations in additional areas. Independent, peer reviewed science strongly suggests that recovery for Mexican wolves will entail three interconnected subpopulations of at least 200 wolves each, one in the Gila Bioregion, one in the southern Rocky Mountains, and one in the Grand Canyon Ecoregion. 

 

  • Lobos pose no threats to people or livestock. Asha has never had conflict with livestock. There’s no reason to remove Asha and other wolves that roam north.

 

Mexican Gray Wolf

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Categories: G3. Big Green

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The Fine Print II:

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