Author Profiles 2006:
STEVE WEST (Carlsbad, NM)

Steve West is the author of Northern Chihuahuan Desert Wildflowers -- a Falcon Field Guide (224 pages, ISBN 1560449802) published in 2000. But donít let the horticultural title fool you -- this book is about all manner of desert growth, and the photography is impressive. Born in 1949, West teaches high-school science, has a greenhouse attached to his classroom, and wanted to do our taping outside (that day was overly windy, though). Heís also a leading expert on the cave swallow, and has been "banding" these birds in and around Carlsbad Caverns National Park for a quarter-century.

An environmental activist with strong views on the Endangered Species Act, West nonetheless cordially coached your editor, Frank Gregorsky (to the right, in the picture), on a landscape of a mutual fascination: The Great American Desert. Maybe you donít care about deserts and the life forms that live and die there? In that case, savor this Q&A for a different reason -- to find out how one goes about producing a guidebook with more photos in it than paragraphs. Itís a form of "publishing" I bet 95% of you never even thought about, and a worthwhile literary recounting in its own right.

STEVE WEST: I grew up in a small town. Our house was about a block away from the edge of the town, and the town had about a thousand people. We had lived in Carlsbad [where I went] to Catholic school for four years, and then we moved to Loving, where I started public school, which was quite a shock after four years of Catholic school.

FRANK GREGORSKY: Were you outgoing, or what they call "inner-directed"?

WEST: I had a small circle of friends. Dad had a grocery store, so my spare time was spent working there or -- preferably -- wandering around in the hills. I didnít really do sports or anything like that. But I was involved in Boy Scouts -- that was probably the most social thing I did.

GREGORSKY: How did you like it, or not like it?

WEST: Oh, I really liked Boy Scouts. Because we got to go camping and hiking a lot. And there were merit badges to work on. If you have a bad scoutmaster, itís a waste of time. But we had some really good ones.

GREGORSKY: Your love for the outdoors -- what did the folks think?

WEST: My dad didnít really have a clue as to where these interests came from. But he didnít do much to stifle them. Sometimes begrudgingly, he would haul me out to the desert -- while he sat in the car, I wandered around and did stuff. He was very glad when I finally got a driverís license [laughter]. I think I had a good childhood.

GREGORSKY: How young were you when the desert first sort of manifested an appeal?

WEST: [Pause] It was early. It could have been sixth grade, or even a year before that -- which was when we moved [from Carlsbad] to Loving.

GREGORSKY: What kind of childhood activities did you pull way back from?

WEST: I had cousins in Arizona who did stock-car racing. When I was a kid, weíd go out there -- and I remember thinking: "Gosh, this is one of the most boring things Iíve ever seen." It just didnít appeal to me. But they liked it, so that was cool.

GREGORSKY: Goiní around in circles!

WEST: Yeah, goiní around in circles. Itís like the one year when I coached track. The kids said "what are we supposed to do?" I said: "Just keep running and keep turning left until I tell ya to stop." I really appreciate quiet sometimes. And you donít get that from NASCAR -- but you can get it sitting in a canyon, looking at trees up on the side of the slope.

West married Rhonda Martin in 1969; they would divorce 26 years later. Working in the potash mines and attending night school, he needed something more solid. In early 1970, West enrolled in Army ROTC. Basic training took place in Fort Knox, Kentucky, where the humidity really got to him. But "it was a good experience overall." He "ended up serving a little more than three years, and about 90% of that was in Panama." He was a courier, which wound up landing him inside a Panamanian prison, where future dictator Manuel Noriega ran the show and tried to extract information West didnít have -- his job was to deliver the envelopes, not read the contents. NOTE: Noriega was "arrested" on drug charges by U.S. troops in December 1989, and is scheduled for release September 7, 2007.

GREGORSKY: Coming out of the service [in early 1975], how did you make your next career move?

WEST: I needed to find a teaching job somewhere, and just started applying all across west Texas. My father passed away, and my mother and brother were still living in Alpine, Texas. I really didnít have any desire to live in Texas, but wanted to be closer to my mom -- because she was haviní a hard time. So I found a job in Presidio, on the Rio Grande, about an hour and a half from Alpine. The desert is great down there -- this is Chihuahuan desert here [in Carlsbad], but [down there itís] classic Chihuahuan. Not only that, but the people were great. Presidio was 95% Hispanic. I had grown up in Loving, which was 85% Hispanic, so felt very comfortable with Hispanic families.

GREGORSKY: You were bilingual even at that point?

WEST: Yeah, but I wasnít good [laughter]. Mom was bilingual, but she never really pushed it with my brother or me. Iíd taken Spanish here and there, but it never really clicked until I moved to Bolivia [in the mid-1980s]. You just sorta had to learn it to survive. And I read Spanish all the time -- I can read it real well. I just wish, when I was a kid, that I had had that opportunity to speak Spanish as much as English.

GREGORSKY: So what did you teach in Presidio, and for how long?

WEST: It was only three semesters, but Presidio was a trip. I taught government, history, and earth science. The next year I had more of a standard schedule -- all science, sixth through ninth grades. The kids were great -- although [being new to the profession] I had nothing to base [that view] on. They werenít well-motivated, but they were decent kids. Maybe it was because it was a different time. The kids were friendly, honest -- all that stuff.

GREGORSKY: And overwhelmingly Hispanic.

WEST: Yeah. Jeez, if you removed the Gringo teachers and the Border Patrol from town, thereíd be [only a half-dozen] Anglo families. Even with the Border Patrol and the teachers, I bet it was less than 5%.

GREGORSKY: Did people even talk about "illegal immigration" back then?

WEST: No. People moved freely back and forth across the river. Iíd go bird-watching and cross the [Rio Grande] at will to see what bird was on the other side. Even then, drugs were coming across. But I never felt threatened, or like I was doing anything wrong, or even gave it a second thought.

GREGORSKY: You needed a rowboat or something [to cross], right?

WEST: Most places, yes. But in a few places you could walk across on rocks. Especially when the river was low. Above Presidio, the Rio Grande is pretty much not a river. Itís dry almost all the time.

The Logical Nature of the Desert

GREGORSKY: Completing the personal part of your bio, let me insert [right about here] that you married Renee Beymer in 2000, and she is SUPERVISORY BIOLOGIST at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Now, stepping outside of any time-line, hereís a philosophical-slash-mystical question.

WEST: Okay [laughter].

GREGORSKY: As a desert neophyte, one of the things that blows my mind is the prickly, serrated and spearlike pattern of desert growth. So the question is: What is your take (a) on the biological meaning of that pattern? And then (b) the more mystical inquiry -- what is the metaphorical meaning of all those stabs and spears we find out there?

WEST: The first one is pretty straightforward. Plants donít sit there and think well, this is what I want -- but thatís the result of it. They have to get their flowers pollinated and get their seeds dispersed. And you canít do either one if you get eaten before you get to that point. So plants in various places have a variety of defenses.

Iíve got a plant growing back there [in the greenhouse adjacent to his classroom]: Nice off-green lush leaves, big white creamy flower (once it finally develops a flower) -- and itís just poisonous as heck. Thatís its defense, whereas most desert plants -- because they have to conserve water -- have either sharp prickly leaves or thorns or needles or alkaloids, or something like this plant does, some sort of poison, that helps protect it so it can get to the point of dispersing its seeds -- but yet be inviting enough so that a moth, hummingbird or bee will come along and pollinate.

Plants have different strategies that theyíll use. For the most part, these things are the end product of thousands and thousands of generations of things that succeeded -- sometimes better, sometimes worse; but this is the final fine-tuned and excellent "product" thatís now surviving out there.

One of the astronauts, while sitting on top of one of the rockets, got to thinking: "Geez, I am sitting on top of however-many pounds of explosives, and this whole thing is the result of 14,000 low-bid government contracts." And that was the only time he worried about it!

GREGORSKY: [Laughter]

WEST: [In the desert, itís] sort of the other way around. They have survived because they are efficient, and they do have to compete.

GREGORSKY: But we can feel respect for life-forms that do their best in that environment, yet donít quite make it?

WEST: Yes. I feel sorry when I go out there and see a critter thatís hurt or struggling, or a plant thatís stressed because we havenít had enough rain. Visiting my mom in Alpine, I carried this five-gallon jug along [and made several visits to one of the arroyos to save this probuscidea]. I hadnít seen many of those plants, it was a hot summer, and the plant was doing terrible.

My actions probably had no impact in the long run. But we as a species have changed the whole flow of energy and water and nutrients so much that I donít feel guilty about trying to give [a plant like that] a little boost. As a species, we still donít understand that we need to tread more lightly and have a smaller footprint where we can. Itís a fine-tuned system, and can take some abuse, but not constantly.

GREGORSKY: Now tackle the "spearlike" question metaphorically.

WEST: A friend of mine from high school, Bruce Anderson, is a bird-watcher. He came out here for a month -- and he hated it. What you said reminded me of his words: "Everything out there is either poisonous or has thorns or spikes" -- he loved the birds, but not the plants or the topography. A lot of people donít appreciate the desert, and thatís fine with me as long as they donít hurt it. But they look at this place, and are absolutely astounded that anybody could live here, or would want to live here.

Maybe this isnít a good comparison, but my grandmother, who was born in Arizona -- she was pretty rough and crusty. And I loved her as much as anybody Iíve ever known. That [crustiness] is part of what I loved about her. Same thing with the desert. Walking through some cat-claw, Iím not going to enjoy it -- but those are the cards youíve been dealt, and thatís how that plant found its niche in life.

GREGORSKY: Things like the Redwoods or the national forests, I donít like Ďem or dislike Ďem -- thereís no strong feeling either way. As for hiking around mountains, I checked out Ruidoso and became claustrophobic after just three hours. Iíd sooner like in Amarillo or Roswell. Point is, Iíll never be an environmentalist -- yet the desert landscape conjures up awe and mystery. People who have the conservative mentality I do -- if they would take the time to appreciate the harshness, the evolution, the survivalism and "shield" all these plants and other life forms have --

WEST: Um-hmm, yep.

GREGORSKY: -- itís very much in keeping with conservative philosophy! [Laughter]

WEST: Uh-huh, yeah -- it certainly is. Because --

GREGORSKY: "Donít mess with me, buddy!" You know?

WEST: Thatís right. "Iím gonna leave you alone. Iím not coming after you. And you leave me alone. Iím in this strong, competitive fight for a little bit of space, a little bit of water, and Iím gonna succeed on my own." I appreciate all that stuff.

We spend several minutes on the works of Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire (1968) and a few other classics. Steve introduces me to some downsides of the manís behavior and attitude. "He made rude comments about immigrants and Hispanics...and a lot of women in the environmental movement really donít care for him."

GREGORSKY: Is there a particular environmental or biological science book that made a profound impact on you?

WEST: [Pause] You know, it may not have even been a biology or environmental book. The Peterson Field Guide series -- which are not really novels or technical works -- were great because that [series] interpreted for me what the names of all these things were and their place in the environment.

Also, The Poisonwood Bible, which does have some environmental stuff in it. I went to Africa in í99 and everyone told me to read that book. Basically, itís a story about this family that goes to Africa to be missionaries in the Congo in the early Ď60s -- a combination of political, environmental, social and theological [themes and lessons] and itís just really a good book.

GREGORSKY: So itís non-fiction?

WEST: It is non-fiction, but with a lot of historical stuff in it. I wrote to the author -- Barbara Kingsolver -- and got a letter back. Iíve read several of her other books since, and didnít really care for them -- but The Poisonwood Bible was head-and-shoulders above.

One of many great things about Renee is that she got me to slow down and make time to read -- something more than journals, magazine articles and newspapers. I really was not reading many books, but now Iím reading books all the time.

The Long and Winding Road -- to a Guidebook

GREGORSKY: In addition to the life and work of Steve West, weíre here to chronicle the production of Northern Chihuahuan Desert Wildflowers. Where did the idea for this book originate?

WEST: I mentioned living in Bolivia. We planned to spend two years there. I was going to [produce a book on] birds in Bolivia because one hadnít been done. Then a whole bunch of stuff happened. My mom back in the States got real sick. The Bolivian government and economy were falling apart --

GREGORSKY: This was around 1985?

WEST: ĎEighty-four, í85, uh-huh. So we came back after a year.

But while I was down there, and frequently not able to get out into the field, I had started working on a book -- "A Naturalist Guide to the Guadalupes," or something like that. It would have a chapter on birds, a chapter on mammals, a chapter on reptiles, a chapter on geology, a chapter on cacti, a chapter on wildflowers -- nothing deep, but something somebody coming through [those mountains] could pick up and read more about it when they got back. The book would impart just how special the Guadalupes were.

Thereís a book like that for Big Bend [National Park] -- itís good for sitting around the tent at night, or on the banks of the [Rio Grande]. When itís too hot to be in the field, you can read the chapter on trees, or the one on the geology of Big Bend. Short, general stuff -- nothing technical. [He is speaking of Naturalistís Big Bend by Roland H. Wauer, published by Texas A&M University, 1973.] That was the idea -- to do something alone those lines [for the Guadalupes].

GREGORSKY: Why didnít you pick the desert to write about?

WEST: The Guadalupes are for the most part protected either by park or national forest [status], and those are places that people would have easy access to. So I came back, went to the [Carlsbad National Caverns] Park here, and said, "Hey, Iíve got this book idea," and sketched the chapters. The guy said: "Well, thatís a good idea, but weíd really rather have a book [that concentrates on] wildflowers."

GREGORSKY: But why did Park authorities have this kind of say-so over your topic?

WEST: Because thereís an association -- the Carlsbad Caverns Guadalupe Mountains Association [CCGMA] -- that runs the bookstores. And also does some publishing -- or steers [writers] in the right direction.

GREGORSKY: I see. So CCGMA would be your guaranteed buyers? If you build it to their spec, they guarantee you a certain market?

WEST: Well, what they did was contacted Falcon Press and arranged [for the book I eventually wrote] to be published.

GREGORSKY: Okay, sort of like your agents.

WEST: Yeah, I guess so. Because I didnít know how to do any of that stuff.

GREGORSKY: Okay, you were doing this back-and-forth with the CCGMA in 1986-87?

WEST: Yeah.

GREGORSKY: And your book ultimately came out 13 years later! This was a long and stretched-out project.

WEST: It was. And it kept changing.

"I donít think anything about this was done normally"

WEST: As I was trying to continually talk them into [my original book design] and not [one devoted to wildflowers], I pointed out that of my 30,000 slides, no more than 500 were of plants, and I doubted any of them were the quality we needed for a book. I wanted to write the book, not spend the next 10 years out there taking plant pictures! But they had a photographer on the [CCGMA] Board who had worked for National Wildlife Refuge System; he had lots of plant photographs; and they said "this guy will take care of the pictures." So I thought, "Well okay, weíre set." When he gave me three or four three-ring binders of his slides, a lot of them were not good enough [and at any rate] he decided to move back to Texas.

GREGORSKY: What year are we up to now?

WEST: Probably í88 or í89. So the photographer had moved, we were going through a drought, and here was the book I was stuck with -- and no [way to get the necessary photos]. CCGMA started to try and round up photographers, and that took way, way too long.

GREGORSKY: Five years?

WEST: Yeahhh, more like seven years.

GREGORSKY: Wow. An unusual problem in producing a book -- something I never even considered. Keep going, this is a good story.

WEST: Well, I learned a lot from it. If I do another one, Iím taking the photographs. And if I had this book to do over, I wouldíve said: "Iíll give you a finished product with all the photographs." Iím not saying they didnít do a good job -- they found the photographs. itís just that it took a long time. The manuscript was ready five years before it was ever sent off the first time.

Another delay came when CCGMAís executive-director expanded the terrain to be covered by the book -- from Carlsbad Caverns National Park to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. More sales likely that way, true, "but we had to go back and redo some of the species..." In 1998, West was persuaded "to include all the parks found in the U.S. Chihuahuan Desert" -- being that broad, the Association could entice Falcon Press to be the publisher.

GREGORSKY: You didnít have a contract with Falcon. What was the nature of the agreement with the Association? It was collaborative association, but how formal?

WEST: I actually did have a contract with [CCGMA by 1998]. Part of the contract said that they would either publish it themselves; or find a publisher; or -- worst-case scenario -- pay me for it even if it wasnít published. I donít think anything about this [project] was done normally.

Coming to Terms with the Desert

GREGORSKY: You have some terms in here that arenít in the glossary, and I could deduce what they refer to. But let me ask you to clarify these two -- "biogeographic province" and "physiographic provinces" -- for the linguists in our web audience.

WEST: Okay. The science of biogeography was first formulated by Alfred Russell Wallace. And you were asking about writers I admire -- heís one of them. Read a lot of Darwin, read a lot of Wallace, and I just adore Wallace. He was a good guy; he really understood people and ecosystems -- [versus] Darwin, who was sort of uppity and didnít really understand the common threads that run through things. They are both great scientists, but if I had to pick one of them to sit across the table or go camping with me -- and talk about politics over a beer, and what kind of bird that was that flew over, and how things work -- Iíd pick Wallace in a heartbeat.

Anyway, "biogeography" refers to the geographic distribution of plants and animals. When you hear that term, theyíre talking about a given area with somewhat of an artificial boundary -- the plants and animals and microbes, and everything that are found there and how they relate, to the distribution of some of those same groups elsewhere. That will show you --

GREGORSKY: So a "province" could be on three different continents?

WEST: Oh yeah, it sure could -- [although] usually youíre talking about a smaller area.

GREGORSKY: The other one is "physiographic provinces."

WEST: Thatís sort of the same way, but it relates more to the non-living elements -- weather, climate, soil, water, mineral composition.

GREGORSKY: Your book also uses the term "the indicator plant" for each of the four North American deserts -- the Great Basin, Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan. I assume that means it canít be that particular type of desert if that plant is not there?

WEST: Yeah, but not --

GREGORSKY: But not in 100% of that desert.

WEST: No, not 100%. I mean, in the Sonoran Desert [of southern Arizona], the Saguaro [cactus] is a great indicator plant for that desert. But itís often not quite that black and white. The indicator plant Lechugiulla just sort of "indicates" that this is probably going to be Chihuahuan Desert. And the desert is expanding and contracting -- but expanding more than contracting, so weíre now finding large areas of the fringes of the Chihuahuan Desert where the indicator plant doesnít grow yet.

Snakes, Big Cats and Fire

GREGORSKY: When we talked on the phone the other night, you mentioned parents (or maybe it was hysterical TV shows) convincing more and more of your students to fear the desert, and in particular snakes. So hereís my first snake question: At the Best Western in Santa Rosa, the ownerís daughter, who serves as desk clerk, told me about the hiding places she had out back while growing up, in a rocky ravine that goes down to the Pecos River. She talked about the red racer, which Iíd never heard about. Neither big nor poisonous. True?

WEST: She is probably talking about the Western Coachwhip. Similar snakes elsewhere in the country are called ďracersĒ and theyíre closely related to this species, although not in the same genus. Some Western Coachwhips are reddish, and some I have seen in west Texas in the Presidio area you could call ďred.Ē Coachwhips can be over two meters long (around seven feet), are very slender, fast Ė and pretty ill-tempered if cornered. But they are not aggressive, only ill-tempered if cornered or threatened.

GREGORSKY: What else does my eastern-time-zone collection of friends, allies and writers need to know about the snakes of the American southwest?

WEST: Well, the first thing they need to know is they probably wonít see any of them. I spend a lot of time in the field and see relatively few snakes in the summer. Many are killed by people and the survivors learn to remain hidden. In addition, lots of other predators kill them for food. There are only a few poisonous species, but many of those are much scarcer than what would be normal. Unfortunately, when some people kill every rattlesnake they come across, they are more likely to notice rattlesnakes that warn them first by rattling. I wonder if people like that are making the rest of our lives more at risk.


WEST: Because it seems to me that the ones who donít warn us to back off arenít being removed! In any case, the best way to see snakes is to drive black-top roads at night, when thereís little traffic, and especially after a rain. On cooler nights, after a rain, snakes will frequently go to the road to warm up on the heat that was trapped in the highway during the day. The western U.S. has snakes ranging from a tiny snake that looks like an earthworm, to long and slender coachwhips, to massive rattlesnakes. Quite an array.

GREGORSKY: Okay, you must have a good ďsnake storyĒ to report here.

WEST: [Laughter] One that comes to mind is from back in 1975 in Panama. I have some local ones too, but this might be better.) A group of us, eight or so, were walking along an old road -- Plantation Trail -- in what was then the Canal Zone. It was a plantation from the turn of that century that had been reclaimed by the jungle. It was myself and several Smithsonian Institute people who were doing research on Barro Colorado Island; and we had [left the island for one day] to see some other area.

As we walked down the trail, we saw a Roadside Hawk flying up from the edge of the old road. Thinking it might have made a kill and curious as to what it might have taken, we walked slowly in that direction. I looked under the vegetation and saw a Tropical Black Rat Snake that was not moving and laterally compressed. I had no idea what that meant and we all moved toward the snake -- which we assumed was dead. We looked at it and moved slowly toward where the head was, expecting it to be dead and already partially eaten.

Just as we reached the head, this huge black head with an unbelievably large mouth lunged at us. Because I was in the middle of the group, it aimed toward me -- just missing my mid-section a few inches below my belt. All of sudden there was screaming and chaos. Dropping thousands of dollars of cameras and binoculars, eight jungle-seasoned biologists ran off in every direction.

Eventually we composed ourselves, gathered our material (and a little dignity), and walked back up the trail. No one really spoke of it, but this would have been a hilarious thing to watch. I suppose the snake adopted that pose as a defensive measure, kept it as we approached -- and then sprung the trap. A beautiful animal -- and I would have hated to have been bit by it, especially there. 

As an aside, a little over a week ago Tommy Joe Hines and I were hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains to one of my study sites and I had a Mountain Lion (which had been resting on a rock ledge) run in front of me at about 4-5 meters! What a wonderful moment -- and that's about all it was.

GREGORSKY: Seems to me a much bigger risk for those who live here and in Arizona is fire. Can you talk about that?

WEST: I just got back from the mountains where I have a forest contract and they are allowing me (with lots of restrictions) to continue my work. My grandson went with me and we had a lot discussion about fire -- he actually brought it up, which I thought was neat.

For those who live in the forest, fire can be a big concern. We've spent 50 years fighting every fire and the result is a large build-up of fire materials that -- had seasonal fires been allowed -- would have burned across the ground, deleting that fuel source. That was the normal situation for years. Examining cross-sections of old trees shows multiple fires over the lives of long-lived trees. They generally don't do the damage you see pictured on TV -- but, when we let the fuel load build up, this is what happens. And it's a shame.

Hopefully, we are learning that some low-fuel fires need to be let run and controlled where they might impact a house or something else we deem important. The alternative now is to go in and clear a lot of the underbrush, thin out the trees, reduce the fuel load. That [course of action] is extremely expensive.

Environmental Principles and National Politics

GREGORSKY: This is my only political question. Itís about two Interior Secretaries -- one who first served as a U.S. Congressman from this state, the other a next-door Governor. Name one very positive result of each, and one fairly negative one. First, Manuel Lujan [Interior Secretary during 1989-92]. Second, Bruce Babbitt [same office, 1993-2000].

WEST: Iíll go with Babbitt first. I think he tried to do the right thing. For the most part, he gave a good strong defense of the Endangered Species Act -- which I would be the first to say needs some fine-tuning. But I want that law to always be there.

On a more local level, Iím glad that Secretary Babbitt helped grease the skids for grey wolves being turned back loose in Yellowstone. I love coyotes, but that ecosystem was out of balance. And one of the first things that happened was the grey wolves cleaned out the coyotes; then they started feeding on the elk -- [doing what] wolves are supposed to do. That has helped to restore a lot of the aquatic and riparian ecosystems in Yellowstone -- you now have willows growing along streams where for years there hadnít been willows, because the elk in the winter ate them down. The Park Service is the group that eliminated the wolves in the first place, many many years ago. Somebody decided that "people want to come here and see big herds of elk, so letís kill off all the predators." Babbitt did some good things like that. On the other side, sometimes I just donít think he had any guts.

GREGORSKY: What is something he whiffed on?

WEST: Oh, Iíll give you a good one. At the end of the first Clinton term, [the President] designated some public lands as national monuments and took a lot of heat for it. Well, we knew he would probably end up doing the same thing toward the end of the second term. So we were pushing for an area -- primarily forest land, between Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns -- to be declared a national monument. We had lunch with Babbitt and I made as strong a case as I could. Ranching would still be allowed. But the designation would say "this is a critically valuable area and we need to give it more attention and manage it better."

GREGORSKY: As opposed to --

WEST: Rather than "managing" it by letting four-wheelers run amok and maybe once every 10 years going up there to count how many cows are up there.

GREGORSKY: He said "okay," then didnít get Clinton to follow through?

WEST: Well, he really didnít waffle, because he didnít tell us he was going to [achieve the designation]. He didnít break a commitment. But [this was part of a pattern] of grandstanding.

GREGORSKY: You came away from that lunch thinking --

WEST: I came away feeling pretty positive it. I said "what more do we need to do?" He said: "Well, weíre just gonna think about it, and weíll decide. You need to understand thereís a lot of places weíre looking at." I said: "Mr. Secretary, this one is a given. This is easy. We can defend it biologically. We can defend it politically. The four ranchers who had leases on that land (one of whom is a cousin of mine) -- they hate you guys with a passion, so youíre not gonna lose any votes [by designating that land a monument]. Do the right thing and donít worry about what people will think. Weíre not closing down caves, weíre not closing access, weíre not stopping hunting."

All weíd be doing is saying "this area is important and will get more federal dollars to manage it right." I mean, that eastern escarpment is a piece of heaven on earth, and Big Canyon has 17 endangered or threatened or sensitive plant species. But the Forest Service doesnít have the staff to go and see whatís out there.

GREGORSKY: And thatís leased land now? Itís not owned by private ranching interests?

WEST: Itís all federal land. Not a single square millimeter of land would have been taken away from anybody. And those leases would pass on to the next generation, if thatís what they wanted.

GREGORSKY: Now, anything from Secretary Manuel Lujanís tenure?

WEST: When he was a Congressman [from New Mexico, 1969 thru Ď88], he had a spotty environmental record. He supported the Endangered Species Act, but begrudgingly. Unlike the rewrite going on now, though, Lujan sort of tempered the [ideological] flames. We didnít see the current kind of [Republican] rhetoric when he was Interior Secretary.

GREGORSKY: Democrats also controlled the Congress back then, so --

WEST: And that does have an impact [when it comes to renewing an environmental law], so [laughter]. Itís hard to fight for endangered species. You know, itís like fighting for a beautiful sunrise -- I mean, you canít put a price tag on it. But people listen to the [scare talk] about "shutting down all the farmers from Roswell to the state line."

Iím very concerned about endangered species. I also donít want to live in a cave, I donít want to eat raw meat, I donít want to shut down oil and gas and have to walk. At the same time, from a philosophical and even a religious viewpoint, protecting endangered species is vital.

I find it hard to believe that God would have put tigers on the Earth so that we can make penis soup out of them -- to pick one of the most obscene examples I can think of. I donít think God put silvery minnows in the Pecos River so that -- because of our mismanagement of water resources -- we can watch them become extinct. Many things have died out, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of people [knowing yet] just not caring.

I wish some of these people had as much respect for bald eagles as they do for the American flag. Look, when somebody burns the flag, it pisses me off. But I donít know about a flag-burning constitutional amendment. And when I see somebody [campaigning for] it, it makes me mad that I donít see that same anger coming from those same people when one of them shoots a bald eagle. Bald eagles are not perfect. Weíre not perfect either. Nothing out there is perfect.

And yet, if you really believe in the goodness of America, and the promise of America, and all the stuff we were taught in school, protecting the national bird is as much a part of that as protecting the flag.

GREGORSKY: Thatís an eloquent way to look at it. I never thought it about that way before. Okay, letís close with an open-ended question looking toward the future: What other climates and/or landscapes engage you professionally?

WEST: Every climate, every landscape, interests me. We got cheap tickets for a couple of weeks later this summer for Australia. But even in May, when I was in Indianapolis for the International Science Fair, I went out and hiked around for a couple of mornings and loved it. That was also where I did my officer basic many years ago, so that brought back a lot of memories.

I have yet to find anyplace boring, even the middle of a big city. But my preference is "the wilder, the better." My favorites are the desert and rainforest -- of course.

GREGORSKY: The acknowledgments page [of your book] lauds Tommy Joe Hines for being knowledgeable about the desert and a fellow who never stops asking questions. And then you make the statement ďand that is what life should be about.Ē Is that a scientist talking, or do you mean that statement more broadly?

WEST: I guess it could apply to both the scientist and [in] more general terms. One of the things that we think makes us different from the other critters on the planet is our inquisitiveness. Searching for knowledge is important and has a lot of value in itself, whether or not [the information we find] can ever be used to improve our lives or our situation. When we quit wondering, we quit living. And itís sad to see the number of people who have absolutely no natural curiosity about anything. We have to find whatever it was that took it away from them, and make sure it doesnít happen to the next generation.

GREGORSKY: Thank you for making this tape, Steve. New Mexico is my favorite place to be, and the desert now has a permanent hold on me.

WEST: And thanks for all that you do. I hope youíll come out again and visit whenever you like.