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What caused the Eagle Creek fire?

By Hanna Eid, Samantha Clarke and Ben Riley - Socialist Worker, September 12, 2017

AS A fire raged through Oregon's Eagle Creek last week and workers struggled to save people stranded in the popular hiking destination, the media were busy placing blame on anyone they could--including a 15-year-old boy--rather than the conditions that laid the basis for the devastation.

On Saturday, September 2, the Eagle Creek fire was reported in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, about 45 miles from Portland, Oregon. By the next morning, the fire had grown to over 3,000 acres and began to move west through the gorge toward the 2.3 million-person Portland metropolitan area.

Over the next three days, temperatures soared into the mid-90s, and winds began to gust, fanning the flames of the once-tame blaze into a 31,000-acre force of nature, capable of threatening the massive population in its path.

The effects from the fire began to be felt by Portland residents on Monday, as smoke filled the air and ash began to rain from the sky. "It's so hard to breathe" became a common sentiment of frustration from people all over the city. Many compared the thick layer of ash coating everything in sight to the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, which spread ash all the way around the globe.

On Tuesday, as the air quality worsened--reaching peaks deemed "very unhealthy" by the afternoon--and the fire drew closer, the city posted evacuation notices for many residents in Portland's eastern suburbs, and set up emergency shelters for displaced residents.

The fire joins others sweeping across Oregon, as well as Montana, California and Idaho, in one of the hottest, driest summers on record. The five hottest summers in Oregon history have all been within the last 13 years, causing the easy and rapid spread of forest fires, whether from human or natural causes.

The annual budget for fire suppression hit $1 billion for the first time in 2000, and only 15 years later hit $2 billion in 2015. The fires have continued to grow bigger and more frequent, even as we spend more money to suppress them.

Yet when both liberal and conservative media outlets chimed in about the Eagle Creek fire, their narrative was focused on retribution and personal accountability. An especially grotesque account from CNN villainized teenagers who were accused of using fireworks that ignited the fire.

But blaming kids for a fire of this magnitude is a misdirection of what is otherwise rightful frustration and anger with unsafe conditions, poor air quality and the destruction of both public and private land.

To prevent devastation like this in the future, we need to address the real causes of this massive fire as well as the others: climate change, the logging industry and the root of both--capitalism.

Four Months into Strike, Idaho Miners Stand Strong

By Brian Skiffington - Labor Notes, July 28, 2017

A beloved 53-year old miner named Larry Marek was killed on the job at the Lucky Friday mine in Mullan, Idaho just a few years back. Steelworkers Local 5114 had been warning the company about the stability of a certain area called a stope. Management had Marek mine out the last piece of earth supporting the cavern for the ore it contained and the roof collapsed.

The consensus is that company greed for profit killed Larry Marek when the ceiling caved in. Now his picture stands on the 24-hour picket line in front of the mine, as 250 miners enter their fifth month on strike.

WHAT’S THE DEAL?

Rick Norman, known as “Redman,” is one of the striking silver miners in the Silver Valley, a stretch of small but proud mining towns along I-90 in the northern Idaho panhandle. He says the terms that Hecla Mining imposed on workers in March radically changes almost every aspect of their daily lives. The company wants to:

  • Eliminate the bid system, a longstanding union procedure in which senior union members put together crews and bid on various jobs in the mine
  • Reduce call-back protections in the event of a mine closure or layoff from three years to three months
  • Pass large insurance costs on to workers
  • Eliminate workers’ ability to bank vacation time, which many use to transition into retirement early

“The bid system is everything,” Redman tells me. “It’s about control.” Workers speculate that the company wants to control job assignments so that they can make old-timers do the backbreaking labor they did 30 years prior, pressuring them to quit and leave the industry. At stake are years of experience, trust, safety, and opportunities for younger workers to learn the job from senior members.

Trust is critical six thousand feet beneath the earth's surface, in confined spaces with rock temperatures near 110 degrees and with unpredictable movements of the earth. “It’s about the right to work with guys that have the training and know the safety,” Redman says.

Idaho is a right-to-work state, so a key component of organizing new workers into the union is convincing them that they have to join if a senior member is going to pick them through the bid system. Ninety-six percent of the bargaining unit is in the union.

The hard-rock mining industry is fickle. Downturns in markets, catastrophes, environmental protections, and many other factors can open and close mines at the drop of a dime. A three-year call-back is critical for any sort of stability for a mining family.

Redman and his fellow strikers paint a picture of a company that used to care about workers and their community. Upper management knew everyone by name and would sit down with you if you were having a problem. “Their office was in Wallace [a 10-minute drive from the mine] and any miner could walk right in and shake their hand,” Redman says. “Sure, there were problems, but we knew we needed each other.”

Several strikers said Hecla used to give workers interest-free home loans. Now, miners say the company seems willing to sacrifice its workforce, the community, and anyone that gets in its way to appease shareholders and generate profit. This strike, the first since 1981, only scratches the surface of the disbelief and frustration this union feels.

Local 5114 has been without a contract since March 2016. When Hecla began implementing its “last, best, and final” offer in March 2017, the union declared an unfair labor practice strike.

Miners contend that management never intended to negotiate at all, and was just buying time while outside contractors finished a critical project. Some speculate that the company intended to force a strike all along. Under labor law, the company cannot permanently replace unfair labor practice strikers. Hecla has not attempted to bring in strikebreakers, though some maintenance and contracting work has continued in the mine and the mill. Rumors abound that management could begin blasting at a slow pace.

Going to Extremes: The Anti-Government Extremism Behind the Growing Movement to Seize America’s Public Lands

By staff - Center for Western Priorities, July 7, 2016

The 2016 armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon provided the American public with a ringside seat to a disturbing trend on U.S. public lands: extremist and militia groups using America’s national forests, parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges to advance their anti-government beliefs.

But these far right-wing organizations are not operating in a vacuum. To the contrary, the armed insurrection in Oregon and Nevada before—led by Ammon Bundy and the Bundy family—share the same foundations as land transfer schemes promoted by some elected leaders in states throughout the West. Both rely upon a philosophy based in vehement anti-government ideologies, both have connections to organizations that espouse armed resistance, both employ pseudo-legal theories to justify their actions, and both use scholarly support from conspiracy theorists and discredited academics.

Our nation’s parks and network of public lands are one of our finest democratic achievements. Americans see management of public lands as one of the things our government does best. But over the last four years, politicians and special interest groups in 11 Western states and in Congress have tried to seize many of these places and turn them over to state and private control.

The elected officials supporting state seizure of U.S. public lands couch their arguments carefully, but our research shows their close associations to extreme individuals, groups, and ideology characterized by antigovernment paranoia and a pseudo-legal approach to the Constitution.

Since the beginning of 2015, 54 land seizure bills have been introduced into Western states, including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. At least 22 state legislators with direct connections to anti-government ideologies or extremist groups were the primary sponsors on 29 of those bills.

Sitting at the hub of the movement and functioning as the bridge between extremism and the mainstream political debate are Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder, and their non-profit, the American Lands Council. A close analysis of Rep. Ivory and Sen. Fielder’s activities, and those of other active land seizure proponents at the state level, shows how these efforts are a functional part of an aggressive anti-government movement that will grow more potent if reasonable Americans don’t take action.

Read the report (PDF).

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