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Elevations

Disparate views from on high

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Craig Welch, who covers the environment for the Seattle Times, says once we start playing "with the tapestry of Mother Nature, we never know exactly what's going to happen." That's the theme of his piece ("The Spotted Owl's New Nemesis,") about the endangered bird that became a cause célèbre two decades ago when environmentalists rallied to block logging in its old-growth forest habitat. But now it faces a new threat—another, bigger owl moving into its territory. Some experts recommend killing some of the invaders. "I was surprised by the whole idea that you would go out and arm people to try to protect one bird from another," says Welch. "On the face of it, it seems ridiculous....It's almost a perfect metaphor for how complicated playing around with nature really is."

When staff writer Abigail Tucker visited George Steinmetz at his New Jersey home, the photographer strapped on his flying machine—a motorized paraglider—and an assistant gave the cord a yank. "It's almost exactly like starting a lawn mower," Tucker says. Later, at an airfield, Steinmetz "went up into the sky very, very quickly. It's nerve-racking to think that he does this in extremely remote places, where if something happened it would take time not only to find him but to get him to a doctor. He's had some catastrophic spills. But I think the fact that he risks his life testifies to his vision as an artist. He loves what he does and he loves the look of the world from up there." ("Winging It,")

Mountaintop coal removal, a ruthlessly efficient process by which entire peaks are leveled, struck freelance journalist John McQuaid as "a good way to get into some of the issues driving the discussion about energy right now." The setting for his story ("Mining the Mountains,") is Ansted, West Virginia, where environmentalists and coal interests are engaged in a face-off with far-reaching implications: about half of the nation's electricity comes from burning coal, and more and more of it is extracted from mountaintops. "In West Virginia the sides are both so entrenched and coal is so tied to the power structure that it's very hard to find some alternative to it or to moderate the practices," says McQuaid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former investigative reporter at the New Orleans Times- Picayune. "The coal association doesn't brook any criticism from environmentalists, and the environmentalists can do nothing but yell and scream. It's disconcerting. As Americans, we like to be able to hammer things out if possible. That just doesn't seem to be an option in this situation."

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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