Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Could Obama's Stimulus Package be the Miracle of the Seagulls or...

This great article from The Washington Post hits close to home to my friends from Grouse Creek. A few years ago, I took a friend and her kids out to our family's ranch house in Grouse Creek. I think the writer below describes these pests pretty well. Let's just say we were shocked at the sight of thousands of otherworldly insects crawling all over the yard, sidewalk and outside walls of the house. The inside of the house had a few too, like on the edge of the sink where I brushed my teeth the following morning. One thing the writer doesn't mention is the high-pitched chirp the critters make. And they all move in unison in response to noise--which is creepy to say the least. The article below shows that one man's pork-barrel project is another man's pork--or livelihood. Another irony here is that my guess is that McCain took close to 100% of the presidential votes cast in this tiny hamlet. We never know really what an earmark is all about unless each is scrutinized. Enjoy the article.
One of Those Earmarks That Bug People
But Utahans Consider Cricket Measure Vital

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009; Page A01

Big bugs with bulging goggle eyes swarmed the remote Utah ranching outpost of Grouse Creek like a biblical plague. Each of the past four summers, the hungry critters known as Mormon crickets have marched by the tens of thousands over grassy hillsides, past juniper trees, across dirt roads and through ranch houses. The noisy insects have devoured crops, frightened children and threatened families' livelihoods in the tranquil high desert.
"It's almost like an Alfred Hitchcock movie," said Brent Tanner, who helps run a large cattle ranch in Grouse Creek that has been in his family since the 1870s. "You just see swarms of these large crickets that move in and can be devastating to crops, and certainly are very irritating. They'll just crawl right into your house, get up on your walls. It's enough to drive a person totally insane."

And this summer, scientists say, it's a sure bet Mormon crickets will be back.

So to the 80-odd folks who live in Grouse Creek, the $1 million congressional earmark secured by their state's junior senator to kill the insects is hardly wasteful pork, as it has been demonized. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and television comedian Jon Stewart may lampoon it as an egregious example of government spending, but to Grouse Creek, the earmark is salvation.

"Everything that's green is just gone," said Tanner's older brother, Jay, who described what happens after Mormon crickets hatch on federal land, migrate onto his family's Della Ranches and eat up acres of grass, alfalfa and cattle feed. "When the crickets come and devastate the area, then I'm done. There's really nothing I can do. It's just like coming in and stealing money out of my wallet."

The passage of a $410 billion omnibus spending bill last week rekindled the debate in Washington over lawmakers' long-standing and fiercely guarded practice of appropriating public money for pet projects. The legislation contained more than 8,500 earmarks, which together accounted for roughly 2 percent of the bill's overall spending.

President Obama, even as he imposed new rules aimed at curbing earmarks and making them more transparent, signed the bill and voiced support for lawmakers having a role in the process.

"I recognize that Congress has the power of the purse," Obama said. "As a former senator, I believe that individual members of Congress understand their districts best. And they should have the ability to respond to the needs of their communities. I don't quarrel with that."

But since the bill was introduced last month, McCain, among the most vocal critics of earmarks, has highlighted projects he considers pork-laden. Opining on his Twitter page about the Mormon crickets earmark, he asked, "Is that the species of cricket or a game played by the brits?"

(In fact, it's neither. Mormon crickets are actually katydids that got their common name when Mormon pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. After their first crops were harvested, according to legend, millions of voracious insects swarmed them. But a band of seagulls swept in, ate the insects and saved the crops. Ever since, the bugs have been called Mormon crickets, and the settlers, crediting divine intervention, incorporated the seagull into spiritual lore.)

On television, news anchors and late-night hosts were astir over earmarks that sounded silly: the Mormon crickets, of course, but also $1.7 million for a honeybee laboratory in Texas, $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii and $1.8 million for swine odor and manure management research in Iowa. "This bill is nothing but a porked-up pork chop of pig pork and bacon pork," Stewart deadpanned on "The Daily Show."

Earmarks do not mandate additional spending. Rather, they require federal agencies to set aside portions of their budgets for specific projects. Critics say this process has long been ripe for corruption. McCain recently called the spending provisions a "gateway drug" to possibly illegal forms of influence peddling. "This evil has grown, and it has grown, and it has grown," he said.

Indeed, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, are in federal prison after criminal investigations connected to multimillion-dollar earmarks, some of which were tied to campaign donations from lobbyists and their clients.
But Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said, "The trouble is not earmarks, per se. The problem is secrecy, which sometimes can lead to abuses."

When it comes to Mormon crickets, there is no quid pro quo. There are no lobbyists, unless you consider the Tanners to be members of the K Street crowd.

"Who gave me the campaign contribution with respect to Mormon crickets?" Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), the earmark's sponsor, said in an interview. "The answer is, obviously, nobody."

This is not the first year Congress has allocated funds in the budget of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to control the insects. Since 2002, earmarks of $350,000 to $1.1 million have been aimed at cricket control, and local officials say the controls appear to be working. At their recent peak in 2004, Mormon crickets infested about 2.8 million acres, a figure that declined to 37,500 acres in 2008, according to state data.

But officials say the insects are difficult, if not impossible, to kill off. "We don't believe eradication is possible," said Larry Lewis, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

Mormon crickets, described by scientists as cockroaches with grasshopper legs, are seasonal insects that have pervaded the American West for centuries. They hatch after the snow melts in spring, quickly grow to adult size of nearly three inches in length and usually die off by winter. They travel in bands, like locusts, and a single female can lay as many as 80 eggs.

"They grow exponentially if they're not controlled each year," Lewis said.

State officials kill the insects by laying poisonous bait -- rolled oats laced with insecticide -- around populated areas and private ranches, Lewis said. The cost is shared equally among the federal government, state government and landowners.

"They have a small effect in killing them off," said Patrick D. Lorch, a biological scientist at Kent State University who studies Mormon crickets. "Honestly, there are billions of these crickets out there."

Lately, ground zero for Mormon crickets has been Grouse Creek. There, residents said, the cricket swarms have been so dense that ranchers driving over them on a road leave behind a gooey layer as slick as ice. Townspeople keep brooms by their front doors to sweep away crickets when they open their doors. One woman woke up in the middle of the night to find a squashed cricket next to her in bed.

"It's pretty traumatic," said Duane Runyan, who teaches with his wife at Grouse Creek's two-room schoolhouse. "For miles, the town was just covered with crickets everywhere. . . . You'd walk out and at first you wouldn't want to step out there because everywhere you go you'd have this crunch and sickening grossness."

There have been economic consequences, too. In ravaging pastures, Mormon crickets leave cattle without feed, dealing a blow to Utah's agricultural economy, which Bennett valued at $340 million. So spending $1 million on cricket control to protect the area's cattle industry should be an easy choice, Bennett argues.

"Put it in purely economic terms, I believe, a case can be made that the feds make money on this exchange," he said.

Bennett, a top Republican on the Appropriations Committee and a close adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), sponsored 64 earmarks totaling $93.9 million in the latest bill, ranking him 41st among 100 senators, according to the anti-earmarks group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Bennett said his earmark for control of Mormon crickets is "as defensible a one that they'll ever find. It's good public policy, it's good economic policy, and it's the kind of thing a representative from the West should do."

Like many lawmakers, Bennett used an earmark to help solve a problem that is plaguing his constituents. Say some lawmakers: How else would the concerns of their communities be addressed in Washington?

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who represents some of the nation's poorest majority-African American communities, sponsored 31 earmarks totaling $36.1 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Clyburn said it is not just his right but also his responsibility to funnel funding back home.

"If you get rid of earmarks, what happens to these communities?" Clyburn asked. "You would have more ill health, more high school dropouts, more people committing crimes. You will have all those kinds of things that come when people lose all hope."

Critics argue that lawmakers should not have unchecked authority to allocate public dollars and that these decisions should be left to federal agencies.

"I don't doubt that Utah has a serious problem with the Mormon cricket," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), one of three Democratic senators who voted against the spending bill. "I'm just not sure that it's fair to the other states. . . . I think the process of earmarking is too arbitrary."

For weeks, ranchers in Grouse Creek have listened to McCaskill, McCain and talk show hosts such as conservative Sean Hannity rail against pork-barrel spending. But they politely disagree.

"I voted for Senator McCain and I know he's straight down the line on no earmarks, but I would disagree with him," said Brent Rose, 53, who tends to 1,000 cattle on his family's sprawling ranch.

"I would ask, 'Doesn't the government have a responsibility to control the pests that come off of their land?' " Rose said before stepping back outdoors to feed his animals and prepare for summer.


The Fullmers said...

Thanks for sharing this, I enjoyed reading it. Hope your enjoying fine weather on your end of the valley! Moana

Josi said...

Great article, Carole, those crickets were so awful, I can't imagine living among them for weeks at a time. I hope they can find a way to curtail them.

jake and kim..... said...

GREAT article. I remember when I was out to Grouse Creek 2 or 3 years back and we ran into a swarm of the little buggers. It was awful. Hope they can get rid of them!