Susan J. Demas: A 'terrifying' wildfire season shows it's time to address climate change

Logan's Pass at Glacier National Park as area wildfires began to subside.  (Susan J. Demas)

Logan's Pass at Glacier National Park as area wildfires began to subside. (Susan J. Demas)

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — Much of the American West has been on fire this summer, but some people will deny this has to do with climate change.

When I touched down last week in Spokane, Washington, I couldn't see the city skyline through the haze. The smoke was omnipresent in northern Idaho, where the rusty sky looked like something out of an apocalyptic sci-fi movie, and western Montana, where the usually cobalt Flathead Lake was a dingy gray.

More than 8 million acres have burned this year, which the Washington Post notes is "larger than the state of Maryland." This could be the worst fire season in U.S. history, thanks to Alaska's "terrifying" conflagrations.

There's a huge financial cost to homeowners and business owners. And the U.S. Forest Service will spend more than half its budget fighting blazes. When the fire level is extreme, that's more than $100 million per week.

In the libertarian-ish west, firefighters are still hailed as heroes. But even as government employees fought to save lives and homes, Rand Paul was scoring political points at a Spokane rally. The Republican presidential hopeful bizarrely claimed western states would be better off without the heavy hand of the federal government.

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Susan J. Demas: Escaping the phony 'War on Christmas' in London

LONDON -- If you're going to spend time anywhere in the run-up to Christmas, I'd highly recommend jolly old England.

OK, so my brother's backpacking trip on Kalalau Trail in Kauai also sounds pretty sweet, if you're into 80-degree weather, technicolor mountains and hidden waterfalls.

Actually, let's face it. My brother is a genius.

But London is a city perfect for pale, nerdy history buffs like my husband and me, as we meandered through Churchill's bunker and eyed Chaucer's original "Canterbury Tales."

And as native Midwesterners, the blustery, gray 50-degree days practically felt like a tropical paradise. It certainly trumped last year's Christmas polar vortex/ice storm tour de force which left some Michiganders without power for a week.

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Susan J. Demas: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz declares new war against America's national parks

(Susan J. Demas)

(Susan J. Demas)

"The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom." -- Teddy Roosevelt

There's nothing more American than hitting the road for a trip to Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.

As I was hiking through the snow-dotted 20 lakes basin on the edge of Yosemite last week, I felt far more patriotic than I did listening to endless fireworks experiments over the July 4th weekend.

There's a wildness to America. You can feel it peering into the pastel hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, hearing the Pacific Ocean's waves thunder at Point Reyes or driving on Glacier's impossibly narrow Going-to-the-Sun Road.

But if you venture off the road, trekking even a few miles in the mountains, through the desert or along the rivers, you lose the crowds. And you can feel the stillness, the splendor and maybe hearken back to an untamed time in America's past.

I never feel freer than hiking all day and setting up camp miles away from any human beings. I try not to disturb the land and no one disturbs me.

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Susan J. Demas: The silly Republican war against the national parks continues

(Susan J. Demas)

(Susan J. Demas)

SEDONA, Ariz. -- It's hiking season and usually I couldn't be happier.

I've been able to explore some of my favorite haunts in Arizona, like the Grand Canyon, Superstition Wilderness and Coconino National Forest.

But the GOP-controlled House just passed a bill last month that could be devastating to efforts to preserve more pristine areas like these. The legislation would gut the Antiquities Act of 1906 signed by Teddy Roosevelt, which might sound archaic, but isn't.

The Antiquities Act allows presidents to designate national monuments without going through Congress, something Democrats and Republicans have taken advantage of in equal numbers.

The act is the reason why we have so many monuments, many of which became national parks -- including the rain forest and beaches of Olympic in Washington, the craggy peaks of Acadia n Maine and yes, the Grand Canyon.

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Susan J. Demas: Uphill climbs in Lansing and Colorado

Valil, Colorado, September 2015

Valil, Colorado, September 2015

ALMA, Colo. -- If you told me 10 years ago that I would be climbing a fourteener, I would have said you were crazy.

So would anyone else who knew me.

At the time, I was enormously eight months pregnant and the family breadwinner as a cub reporter making negligibly more than minimum wage. I also had been the nerdy kid with no discernible athletic talent who came armed with a book to the games of my brother, who naturally was a three-sport all-star.

Mount Democrat, 14,154 feet, Colorado, August 2012.

Mount Democrat, 14,154 feet, Colorado, August 2012.

But there's something to be said for discovering new things about yourself. That's what your thirties are for.

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Susan J. Demas: Love freedom? Then love the national parks

Rock Mountain National Park, Colorado, September 2015

Rock Mountain National Park, Colorado, September 2015

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. -- I get libertarianism.

I get the idea that no one likes paying taxes. I get that some folks have decided that kicking in as little as humanly possible is "freedom."

I get that some Americans are deeply suspicious of the government robbing us of our freedom and find solace in the Tea Party.

I get that many people don't particularly want to pay for government spending they don't need or approve of, like the Iraq war or welfare.

I get that many Americans view themselves as islands or lone wolves who don't depend on the dang gov'mint for anything.

I also get that 99.9 percent of these people are full of crap. Whether it's the roads they drive on, the schools their kids attend, the water they drink, the toilets they flush, the Social Security they collect, the small business loan they attained or the homeowners' tax break they enjoy, most libertarians, alas, are beholden to Big Government.

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Susan J. Demas: Of peaks and politicians

Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, July 2010

Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, July 2010

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - You haven't truly lived until a mountain has kicked your ass and you fight back to summit it anyway.

I'm not supposed to be an outdoors person. I grew up with my nose in a book, carrying several in tow on family vacations (and once to a Cubs game, something for which my dad has yet to forgive me two decades later). My mind is always clacking away, to which my exes will attest with various levels of exasperation.

But in recent years, I've discovered the joy of a ridiculous hike, an impossible climb - because it's rather difficult to survive if one is contemplating Nietzsche's Superman or something really complex, like health care reform.

And with the Legislature already primed to keep my dance card full for all of September over the budget (into the wee hours of the night and weekends, a girl can only hope), I thought it best to escape civilization while I could. A little time with the sequoias and Sierra Nevadas never hurt anyone.

There's that point in every hike when your fuzzy brain beckons you to glance down the cliff and toy with the idea of hurling yourself off of it - because that seems easier, less excruciating than finishing. After you push through, that's usually when the innate rhythm kicks in.

And there's nothing like a 360-degree view that you've earned, like slogging through four miles of muted forest and switchbacks before scrambling into an Ansel Adams photograph atop Sentinel Dome.

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