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Neighborhood Watch

Illustration by Travis Coburn

IN THE COLD WAR'S COCKSURE YOUTH, when the light of atmospheric atomic blasts had the life-giving halo of the sun and "downwind" was a fraternity joke, the U.S. government had a plan for the Great Basin's high deserts. America, to beat the USSR, needed a wasteland in which it could hone its strategic arsenal of A-bombs, H-bombs and anthrax. The high plateau, covering thousands of square miles of rock, sun, salt, sand and sage, encompassing all of Nevada and much of Oregon, Idaho and Utah, would be a monument to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction -- MAD for short. Sparsely populated -- except Salt Lake City -- with little arable land and less water, what else was the Great Basin good for?

By the early 1970s, when Chip Ward and his wife moved to Grantsville, outside Salt Lake City, open-air testing had ended, but the Cold War was plodding along. Their new hometown sat on the edge of the Dugway Proving Grounds, which, writes Ward, "alone are the size of Rhode Island, and also Nellis Air Force Base, Hill Air Force Range, the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant and the infamous Nevada Test Site." The military made itself felt, literally. During Ward's first spring, while he was playing outside with the kids, his home "rattled and a thunderous boom followed." It turns out that at Tooele Army Depot, northeast of Grantsville, "bomb season" had begun. "Munitions, like groceries, go stale . . . Taking the old stuff off the inventory . . . and exploding [it] was the traditional means of disposal." Sometimes the plaster cracked. Dogs barked, horses spooked, babies wailed. "Often a huge dirt and smoke cloud would rise slowly up into the blue sky and then drift over town, leaving a fine dusting of dirt and who knows what on lawns, cars, gardens and clothing hung to dry."

Still, the New Jersey couple liked the arid, hot hamlet situated at the foot of the "forested canyons and streams of the Stansbury Mountains . . . Most days the air is clear," Ward writes, "skies are wide and blue, and the constant horizon is filled with postcard-pretty snow-capped mountains . . . You could encounter a rattlesnake, a pelican and a bighorn sheep all on the same day."

Then, in 1984, President Ronald Reagan asked Congress to pony up $100 billion for his harebrained shell game, the MX missile. Although U.S. submarines, nearly impossible to target, already carried enough holocaust firepower to launch 100 World War IIs, 200 multiple-warhead missiles would be hidden in 4,600 shelters scattered throughout the Great Basin, "each missile a 192,000-pound pea and each shelter a potential shell." The project would require 8,500 miles of new superreinforced roads or railways, 40,000 square miles of desert and every ounce of available water. It would likely kick up a vast dust storm, engulfing some of the nation's finest parks. Locals would become virtual prisoners of military diktat. And Salt Lake City would become "a Soviet-nuclear-missile magnet."

The entire plan was nuts. "Cold War . . . insanity was willing utterly to sacrifice a Western desert area the size of New England to military preparedness for an Armageddon none of us could long survive. I lived on the rim of that potential sacrifice zone. I hadn't heard the word ecocide yet, but I knew that was what I was looking at."

Within two years of its proposal, the MX plan was scuttled. The Navy didn't like it because it excluded sea-based deployment, Congress thought the price tag exorbitant for an unproved system, and finally, Utah's true power brokers, the Elders of Zion, didn't relish becoming ground zero. The process transformed a bystander: Chip Ward. "Once you open your eyes," he realized, "it's amazing what you see."

"Political leaders who could contemplate turning my back yard into an apocalyptic labyrinth could not be trusted. I would soon find out there was a powerful precedent for sacrificing the desert environment and public health for military ends. It had happened before and my back yard was already well on its way toward being a sacrifice zone."

THE BERLIN WALL MAY HAVE FALLEN and the Cold War imploded, but the nuclear age, like the plutonium on which it depended, was alive with an interminable pulse. Coming at Ward was a relentless stream of nuclear and chemical waste. County officials wanted to grant a permit for a hazardous-waste incinerator just upwind from Grantsville. Elsewhere, the military wanted to put a nerve-gas burner online. And the Department of Energy, in a quandary over whether to entomb 70,000 tons of nuclear-power-plant detritus in nearby Yucca Mountain, hoped to park the stuff at Tooele. That radiation was so hot that if one of the thousands of trucks that would have to tote it in happened to pass you on the highway, you'd get the equivalent of a dental X-ray.

Ward quickly discovered that "you never know where the chemical ghosts of the Cold War may be lurking." The West Desert, where Ward lived, was "an environment where nerve gas, pathogens and radiation were always drifting about." Whole swaths of desert were littered with unexploded bombs, so-called "non-stockpile" munitions. The Dugway Proving Grounds alone had released a half-million pounds of nerve agents into the air -- 3.5 trillion lethal doses.

So Ward and a few of his neighbors began talking about the health threat posed by the planned incinerators. They conducted their own (admittedly unscientific) health survey, hoping to get a snapshot of their community's well-being. Illness was everywhere: cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, strange debilitating disorders. "When you realize that there is cancer in every third house you pass, the evidence becomes compelling." The fight against incineration was on.

It was an uphill struggle. Deserts, as Ward says, are difficult places to defend. "Their location populations are often small, scattered and desperate for economic advantage. Because the terms and criteria of our public debates over how land is used are 'practical' or utilitarian, it is hard to protect ground that offers no obvious other economic benefit . . . The connections between what happens in the 'barren wastelands' and what shows up in the blood and cells of those who live downwind are also hard to convey."

What Chip Ward and his neighbors were, and are, up against is more than the military juggernaut or government officials curtsying to their greedy corporate bosses. The real danger lurks beyond the Geiger-counter diseases and Hot Wheels warheads. The enemy is the American aptitude for doing violence to the land, in carefree disregard of the desert as a virtue in and of itself. Ward echoes the flip side of the American ethos, of John Muir's and Gifford Pinchot's efforts to quarantine parts of the West from the blight of Manifest Destiny. Ward: "Those who come to the Great Basin with open minds and active senses . . . see it . . . is a unique place of silence and solitude that owns a spare and stubborn beauty." That ought to be enough. No need to extract its minerals or sweep toxic effluent under its desiccated surface.

It also happens that the desert is part of the fragile membrane of all life. In reality, Ward says, you cannot bury anything there that will not someday re-emerge elsewhere in the ecosystem. All those cattle in the Great Basin grazing dioxin-laced grass produce poisoned beef, which in turn produces poisoned mother's milk, which in turn . . .

NEARLY 25 YEARS AGO, AROUND THE time Chip Ward first visited Utah's complex of red-rock canyons and desert mesas, the noted physician Lewis Thomas told the story of organelles, single cells without nuclei that incorporated themselves into all living things some billion or more years ago. They "are moving about in my cytoplasm, breathing for my own flesh, but strangers," Thomas wrote. "They are much less closely related to me than to each other and to the free-living bacteria out under the hill. They feel like strangers, but the thought comes that the same creatures, precisely the same, are out there in the cells of sea gulls, and whales, and dune grass, and seaweed, and hermit crabs, and further inland in the leaves of the beech in my back yard, and in the family of skunks beneath the back fence, and even in that fly on the window. Through them I am connected; I have close relatives, once removed, all over the place."

What is true about the nature of life inside the body is equally true for life outside. The parched soils and dried-out canyons of the remote Utah badlands are the rim on which we are all perched. We are all canaries. This is Chip Ward's simple, if hard-learned, point.

CANARIES ON THE RIM By CHIP WARD | Verso 238 pages | $25 hardcover

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