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When I was nine and growing up in Idaho, we stood in our backyard one evening after school and watched a wildfire move slowly down the Boise foothills. Fire is a part of a Western life, just like winter’s snowfall or the brief springtime greenness in the desert. It’s seasonal, it’s natural, it’s part of the wilderness. But in recent years, the fires have increased with such frequency and severity that for months at a time, the sky turns a thick, surreal orange, the orb of the sun arcing across smokey valleys through a seemingly perpetual sunset. It’s hard to exercise, to work outside, to breathe. Each summer brings new heat records, entire weeks with highs that hover, excruciatingly, in the 100’s.

I moved away from Idaho over ten years ago. Outside the West, most confuse Idaho with Iowa, Illinois or Indiana. But it’s not the Midwest. Idaho is the West, specifically Intermountain West. Initial impressions of Idaho are of its vastness: the semi-arid sagebrush steppe unfurling under an enormous sky, carpets of pines that reach upwards to 12,000-foot peaks, rivers that meet rivers that spill into yet other rivers. It is undeniably beautiful. Idaho is also the fastest growing state in the nation; its capital, Boise, is the fastest growing city. Despite its growth and a quickening urbanization, Idahoans’ identities remain centered around rural life: following trails into the wilderness to hike or ski, hunting and fishing for food and sport, farming and ranching to live off the providence of the land. And they notice it changing, the wild world transformed by fire or drought; unpredictable and strange.  

Idaho is a conservative place, the only state in the nation whose legislature stripped climate change from educational curriculum (a decision overturned in 2018, after three years of debate). In the 2016 election, nearly 60% of Idahoans voted for Donald Trump. Less than two years later, the federal government released a detailed assessment of climate change in America. It stated that the Northwest region, which includes Idaho, has warmed 2°F since 1900, resulting in warmer winters and reduced snowpack, overall drought and water scarcity, increased wildfire, spread of invasive species, and new and worsening challenges for wildlife. The report detailed a long list of possible future problems. It explains that climate change is happening now, and it will get worse. Climate scientists in Idaho say the same, as do tribal representatives and the state’s newly-elected Republican governor, former rancher Brad Little. Despite that, Idahoans are less likely to believe that climate change is real and caused by human activity: down by about seven percentage points from the national average. When talking with Idahoans about climate change, some say they believe and others don’t, as if it were a legend or a story, and not scientific fact. But climate change is a story, one that we are each at the center of: a story told in fire and snow, faith and power.

 
 
 
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“Everybody talks about the weather. But, politically, climate change is probably something that people don't want to talk about. And yet when I think about it, I think: where are the places that are going to be most impacted by climate change? Low lying areas, coastal areas first. And the second area that's going to feel an impact is going to be rural America, rural places.
We should be concerned.”

— Merrill Beyeler, rancher

 
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“There used to be some rules of thumb around here. We’d say, ‘Never cut hay until the first of July,’ because if you cut it before then, you're going to get it rained on. And ‘Always have your hay finished by the ninth of August, or you're going to get it rained on, and if you're cutting second crop you better have it all down by the fifth of September.’ Those were sort of rules of thumb that everybody operated by. They no longer apply. These days, they cut hay in June and we are cutting hay today in September. And we'll cut next week in September. Normally, if you were cutting this late, back in time, it would all be frozen.”

— Merrill Beyeler - rancher

 

“Western Idaho has what’s called a xeric climate: a climate where it's winter wet, summer dry. Most of our precipitation comes during between September and June, and we get very little precipitation in July, August and the first part of September.

If you're talking about growing food, other parts of the country like Ohio or Iowa get a much more significant part of their precipitation in the summer months when things are growing. We don't. And so Idaho really has a disconnect between our precipitation season and our growing season.”

— Jen Pierce, climate scientist

 
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“My wife, Sharal, grew up on a ranch about eight miles out of Leadore, just across the Lemhi Valley. And her father could ride a horse on the snow drifts from the ranch to Leadore over to see us and never had to open a gate, because the snow was taller than the fences. Those same fences are still there. But you could never ride a horse from that ranch to Leadore on snowdrifts, over the fences today. There’s just not enough snow anymore.”

— Merrill Beyeler, rancher

 
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“The West is susceptible to the facts of climate change, because we're a water-limited part of the world. We're so dependent on snow, everything's built on snowmelt.  Snow or rain has a threshold: there’s a big difference in a change from 31 degrees to 34 degrees. Boom! There’s no more snowpack.”

— Shawn Benner, Hydrologic Scientist

 
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“Farmers usually don’t talk about climate change. They talk about the weather, for sure, all the time. The weather is always a topic of conversation, how hot, how dry, how wet, et cetera. Farmers are never satisfied with the weather, so I think farmers always talk about the weather. There's always something wrong with whatever weather you've got.
I worry about the weather, but no, I guess I don't know that I worry about climate change.
I pay attention the weather and to the snowpack because I know it affects me, and I know that it will affect the decisions that I need to make in the coming season.”

— Pat Purdy, farmer and entrepreneur


 
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“One day, I was walking through the hayfield feeling the hay sliding through my fingers. I realized: I was smiling.  We have to see what we are doing during those moments when we find ourselves smiling. And this is what makes life meaningful.”

— Merrill Beyeler - rancher

 
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“[It is] our manifest destiny to overspread and possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

— John L. O’Sullivan, 1845.

Written as the beginnings of Oregon Trail brought increasing numbers of settlers West.

 
 

“Native Americans are significantly more likely to suffer from chronic health issues: anything from respiratory issues like asthma to diabetes.
And diabetics are more sensitive to extreme heat. That's a major concern for a lot of people,  the impacts of climate and its impacts on human health, from higher heat to flooding to smoke’s impacts on elders’ health.”

— Amber Ziegler, Climate Change Specialist with the Nez Perce Tribe

 
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“Our culture, our language, and our knowledge is like a manual of this land. This land is not ours. Our culture is not ours, because the ways we follow are dictated by this Earth, by this land. Our people, our law, and this land are the same.

It’s a hard concept to try to explain to outside people. I think other indigenous people in other places understand that. So when we see these drastic changes that are happening in the plants, in the animals, in the water and the fish especially; those are things felt deeply by communities that are still trying to maintain our connections to the earth.”

— Nakia Williamson-Cloud - Ethnographer, Cultural Resource Program Director for the Nez Perce Tribe

 
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“Looking at a business-as-usual scenario for Idaho, the temperatures are predicted to be seven to ten degrees warmer by 2100. In 82 years. Actually, it's getting warmer as time goes on, so it's not as if suddenly in 2100 it's going to be seven or ten degrees hotter. High temperature records have been set again and again, and we are already having heat waves with higher temperatures for a longer number of days. 
And that is predicted to get worse, much worse. 

That really impacts tribal members because they don't necessarily have reliable air conditioning units or good insulation in their homes. I know tribal members who can't have their lights on the summer because they're trying to run air conditioning units to keep their homes cool. What will it be like for them in 20 years when their houses are older and the heat waves last longer?“

— Stefanie Krantz, Climate Change Coordinator for the Nez Perce Tribe

 
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“This is the opening to the fish ladder for the Dworshak Dam. It is also where the hatchery collects fish to produce the next generation to mitigate for the dam.  The hatchery is built on a village site that had been occupied for thousands of years Historically there were spring, summer, and fall salmon runs and winter steelhead runs that past the village allowing access to fresh fish throughout the year. In the past, the Tribe monitored flows in the river on a large boulder and based on the flow level they would determine when to start fishing and where to install the fish weir in.  This location, the rock, was inundated when the dam filled with water. But the rock was removed by the Army Corps of Engineers and there have been talks lately about returning it to the Tribe.

Tribal fishermen are fishing for food for themselves or their extended family, so it is important for them to catch as many fish as they can on each outing.  Historically, we fished at a picket weir, which caused fish to congregate and allowed many fish to be caught at one time. Sportsmen often see this as unfair, but they forget we are fishing for survival and not recreation. The treaties signed with the Tribe reserved and guaranteed the right to fish at usual and accustomed locations.  

Fishing, in general, is very important to the Tribe, as it played a major role in what we ate as well as our commerce.  The Tribe fished from the lower Columbia River to the headwaters of the Salmon and Clearwater rivers: some 900-plus miles upstream.  Any surplus fish caught were often preserved and traded with Tribes that had no access to fish as far away as the Dakotas. Today, fish plays a very small role in the diet of the Tribe for two main reasons: first, there are fewer fish to be caught, and second, we get modern foods available in stores.  Recently, there have been studies showing the link between the change in diet and the increase in diabetes and obesity in tribal members. So hopefully with increases in salmon populations, there will be a decrease in poor health and disease."

— Mike Tuell, Fisheries Manager Dworshak National Fish Hatchery

 
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“When I was little there was fish everywhere, all kinds of fish. Now there's no fish hardly.

There's no water, all the streams are smaller and smaller. They're finding out the dams and the lack of salmon is even impacting the orca whales in the ocean. Everybody's connected. The circle of life. It's really that way. It's not only the fish, it's everything. There’s more fires, there's less food. We go digging and there's less to dig. It our medicine and our food. A lot of it's closed off or not there no more. It’s been burned off or dug up or there's wheat fields where there never used to be.

I'm scared for my children from what I've seen in my lifetime. There's going to be no fishing for them or no treaty rights. There's less and less for them. I don't see my grandchildren having what I had. That's why I take them fishing today.”

— Jeff Scott , fisherman and member of the Nez Perce Tribe

 
 
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“Our religion is based around the salmon. The salmon is the first food. It is also the most important food to give to the land. They come here, they spawn, and they die. They bring all the goodness from the ocean here to our mountains. They lay their babies in our waters. We have the clearest water of all the land. It’s an indicator of water quality. Cold water sustains good salmon. Warm water kills the fish. The climate change is warming up the water, the dams are slowing down the water. The water's heating up and killing the fish. It's not only the fish, it's everything. There’s more fires, there's less food. We go digging for roots and there's less to dig. Our medicine and our food: a lot of it's closed off or not there no more. It burned off or died off or you go there now and there's wheat fields where there never used to be.”

— Jeff Scott, fisherman and member of the Nez Perce Tribe

 
Ceremonial salmon, gathered by ceremonial fishers for tribal use: for births, funerals, gatherings, and ceremonies.

Ceremonial salmon, gathered by ceremonial fishers for tribal use: for births, funerals, gatherings, and ceremonies.

 

“When I was little, I asked my grandmother, ‘When will I know when it's time to fish?’ And she told me, ‘Your grandfather will come tell you.’ I didn't understand that.  In the springtime, little yellow birds come here. Little yellow birds all the year. They come. They follow the salmon. My grandfather’s name was Piopio Muks-Muks, which means ‘Yellow Bird.’ In our tribal history, they say that when you hear the doves cooing, it's time to start getting ready because the salmon are coming.

And when the yellow birds come every year, then I know it's time to go. It's not time to get ready. It's time to go.  When I was working as a builder or in construction, when it came time for fishing, I would go fishing. I would always come back and I would always have my job, because I was a good worker. It was more important to do the things of my grandfather every year. His name was Piopio Muks-Muks, the little yellow bird that tells us to fish. Today, I think he must have been a really good fisherman to carry that name.”

— Jeff Scott, fisherman and member of the Nez Perce Tribe

 
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“Our spirituality is centered around the foods that we set on the table. And in order to have them there, we have to gather them. I'm getting old and I'm not nearly as fast as I used to be, but I always tell our younger women, ‘The creator's garden is like any other garden. And you can't get radishes in January, and so when our foods are ready, you need to know when that is, and you need to get out there and get them.’

Because of climate change, you don't know how long that season is going be anymore. The gathering seasons are shorter. A couple years ago, the gathering season usually is a month and a half, and it was only a week and a half, especially with the berries. It was just so hot. And so you need to get out there and get them, because once that season is over, it's over. And you can't get that food until it's ready to harvest next year.”

— Lee Bourgeau, gatherer and member of the Nez Perce Tribe

 
 
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“Here in Idaho, we depend on having water go into the irrigation systems at the right times during the year. But, we're either getting less snow, faster snowmelt or more rain, at the wrong times of the year. It’s all changing and people are trying to adapt. Fire is the other big thing. We're seeing longer fire seasons with more bigger, intense fires.

That impacts people in a place like Idaho, where there are people living in the wildlife-urban interface, out there on the edge of the forest, and you have people living in valleys impacted by smoke.”

— Lisa Eller, Director of Communications at The Nature Conservancy in Idaho

 
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“People need to understand the degree to which wildfires and wildfire smoke impact Western communities. Within the last five to ten years, we now have a season of smoke that will extend from July to September. The air quality is terrible. You can't exercise outdoors, you can't see the mountains. It's become the new normal. Globally, annually we estimate that over 320,000 people lose their lives due to wildfires, from the smoke.

With something like a hurricane, we know exactly how many people lost their lives due to flooding or from the storm. Smoke is this vague problem. It's not as dramatic as a big storm. But it is pervasive and it is affecting our lives to a greater and greater extent. Likewise, the fires, especially in ecosystems that are not adapted to frequent fires, it is very damaging for those ecosystems and for the animals, the bears, and birds and bees live there.”

— Jen Pierce, climate scientist

 
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“When I look at climate models, I see wildfires. The warmer temperatures and earlier onset of spring will melt snow off our landscapes earlier and will dry out our forest and rangelands earlier. And that is considerably  lengthening the fire season. And, I worry about water. Are we going to have enough water? It’s certainly an issue for our agricultural communities and our forests. “

— Jen Pierce, climate scientist

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“Wildland firefighters are a group of people aligned in a similar direction, with backgrounds that are as varied as the terrain that we work in. The woods and the work call to each of us individually, from the isolation, the camaraderie, the sense of service, the purpose-driven life. They are all reasons that we put our lives on hold and travel the country to support our lands and the people who call them home.”

— Evan Guzik- wildland firefighter

 
Smoke, sun, and sky. 11:58am. Boise, Idaho.

Smoke, sun, and sky. 11:58am. Boise, Idaho.

 
 
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“Idaho is uniquely and very deeply connected to the outdoors. Even people that are not active participants self-identify as outdoor-oriented. We are one of the most urbanized states in America, but people are very deeply oriented to their connection to the outdoors, and a rural way of life.  ”

— Rick Johnson, Executive Director of the Idaho Conservation League

 
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“Successful ranchers have their eye to the ground for any changes like the lack of rain, lack of snow, the threat of fire. The rainfall patterns and snow melt are certainly factors. The amount of water and when it comes is really important. And when you’re used to those patterns and those patterns are disrupted, you need to make adjustments.
Hopefully you can make adjustments.”

— John Peavey, rancher and shepherd

 
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“This work can be harsh. The sun is harsh, the wind is harsh. It’s hard on your hair and skin. But, it’s also nurturing in a strange way. It just makes me feel good. I don’t know quite how to say it. It’s there, and it’s what I want to do. I can’t imagine myself anyplace else.”

— Lorna Steiner, rancher

 
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“Most of the time, you get along with your neighbors, if there are the arguments, they are over water. Either we get those dry years where there isn’t much water, so nobody fights because everyone just knows there isn’t water. Or, there are the years where there’s pretty good water, and that’s when the arguments are. Because that’s when there’s something to fight over.

Every year, you pray for a hard winter, a snowy winter, so that you can get good snowpack that regenerates the springs and wells in the lower country. “

— Lorna Steiner, rancher

 
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“My life is the rural life. It’s the open spaces, your friends, your family, your neighbors. Getting to see the coyotes and the rabbits. It’s hard to express because it’s in your heart.  I’ll get emotional if I start talking about it. It goes back to my dad. He farmed and I learned as a kid to appreciate the outdoors and nature and growing something and doing something with your hands. I feel like my husband and I have instilled that in our kids, too. They love it too. I mean, gosh, look at these mountains. They are beautiful. How can you not just sit out here and wonder at the creation that the Lord’s made.”

— Lorna Steiner, rancher

 
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“Climate’s changing, there’s no question about it.”

— Idaho Governor Brad Little (R)

 

This project was made possibly by the Surel’s Place Art Residency Program in Boise, Idaho. Editing help by Shane Thomas McMillan, Rebecca Stumpf, Tasha Graff, and Harper Burke.