This Thing Called Courage

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Where the Money's Gone


If this doesn't make your blood boil, check your pulse.

The Rip-off in Iraq: You Will Not Believe How Low the War Profiteers Have GoneBy Matt Taibbi, RollingStone.com
Posted on August 30, 2007, Printed on August 30, 2007
http://www.alternet.org/story/60950/


How is it done? How do you screw the taxpayer for millions, get away with it and then ride off into the sunset with one middle finger extended, the other wrapped around a chilled martini? Ask Earnest O. Robbins -- he knows all about being a successful contractor in Iraq.

You start off as a well-connected bureaucrat: in this case, as an Air Force civil engineer, a post from which Robbins was responsible for overseeing 70,000 servicemen and contractors, with an annual budget of $8 billion. You serve with distinction for thirty-four years, becoming such a military all-star that the Air Force frequently sends you to the Hill to testify before Congress -- until one day in the summer of 2003, when you retire to take a job as an executive for Parsons, a private construction company looking to do work in Iraq.

Now you can finally move out of your dull government housing on Bolling Air Force Base and get your wife that dream home you've been promising her all these years. The place on Park Street in Dunn Loring, Virginia, looks pretty good -- four bedrooms, fireplace, garage, 2,900 square feet, a nice starter home in a high-end neighborhood full of spooks, think-tankers and ex-apparatchiks moved on to the nest-egg phase of their faceless careers. On October 20th, 2003, you close the deal for $775,000 and start living that private-sector good life.

A few months later, in March 2004, your company magically wins a contract from the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to design and build the Baghdad Police College, a facility that's supposed to house and train at least 4,000 police recruits. But two years and $72 million later, you deliver not a functioning police academy but one of the great engineering clusterfucks of all time, a practically useless pile of rubble so badly constructed that its walls and ceilings are literally caked in shit and piss, a result of subpar plumbing in the upper floors.

You've done such a terrible job, in fact, that when auditors from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction visit the college in the summer of 2006, their report sounds like something out of one of the Saw movies: "We witnessed a light fixture so full of diluted urine and feces that it would not operate," they write, adding that "the urine was so pervasive that it had permanently stained the ceiling tiles" and that "during our visit, a substance dripped from the ceiling onto an assessment team member's shirt." The final report helpfully includes a photo of a sloppy brown splotch on the outstretched arm of the unlucky auditor.

When Congress gets wind of the fiasco, a few members on the House Oversight Committee demand a hearing. To placate them, your company decides to send you to the Hill -- after all, you're a former Air Force major general who used to oversee this kind of contracting operation for the government. So you take your twenty-minute ride in from the suburbs, sit down before the learned gentlemen of the committee and promptly get asked by an irritatingly eager Maryland congressman named Chris Van Hollen how you managed to spend $72 million on a pile of shit.

You blink. Fuck if you know. "I have some conjecture, but that's all it would be" is your deadpan answer.

The room twitters in amazement. It's hard not to applaud the balls of a man who walks into Congress short $72 million in taxpayer money and offers to guess where it all might have gone.

Next thing you know, the congressman is asking you about your company's compensation. Touchy subject -- you've got a "cost-plus" contract, which means you're guaranteed a base-line profit of three percent of your total costs on the deal. The more you spend, the more you make -- and you certainly spent a hell of a lot. But before this milk-faced congressman can even think about suggesting that you give these millions back, you've got to cut him off. "So you won't voluntarily look at this," Van Hollen is mumbling, "and say, given what has happened in this project … "

"No, sir, I will not," you snap.

"… 'We will return the profits.' …"

"No, sir, I will not," you repeat.

Your testimony over, you wait out the rest of the hearing, go home, take a bath in one of your four bathrooms, jump into bed with the little woman… . A year later, Iraq is still in flames, and your president's administration is safely focused on reclaiming $485 million in aid money from a bunch of toothless black survivors of Hurricane Katrina. But the house you bought for $775K is now assessed at $929,974, and you're sure as hell not giving it back to anyone.

"Yeah, I don't know what I expected him to say," Van Hollen says now about the way Robbins responded to being asked to give the money back. "It just shows the contempt they have for us, for the taxpayer, for everything."

Operation Iraqi Freedom, it turns out, was never a war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It was an invasion of the federal budget, and no occupying force in history has ever been this efficient. George W. Bush's war in the Mesopotamian desert was an experiment of sorts, a crude first take at his vision of a fully privatized American government. In Iraq the lines between essential government services and for-profit enterprises have been blurred to the point of absurdity -- to the point where wounded soldiers have to pay retail prices for fresh underwear, where modern-day chattel are imported from the Third World at slave wages to peel the potatoes we once assigned to grunts in KP, where private companies are guaranteed huge profits no matter how badly they fuck things up.

And just maybe, reviewing this appalling history of invoicing orgies and million-dollar boondoggles, it's not so far-fetched to think that this is the way someone up there would like things run all over -- not just in Iraq but in Iowa, too, with the state police working for Corrections Corporation of America, and DHL with the contract to deliver every Christmas card. And why not? What the Bush administration has created in Iraq is a sort of paradise of perverted capitalism, where revenues are forcibly extracted from the customer by the state, and obscene profits are handed out not by the market but by an unaccountable government bureaucracy. This is the triumphant culmination of two centuries of flawed white-people thinking, a preposterous mix of authoritarian socialism and laissez-faire profiteering, with all the worst aspects of both ideologies rolled up into one pointless, supremely idiotic military adventure -- American men and women dying by the thousands, so that Karl Marx and Adam Smith can blow each other in a Middle Eastern glory hole.

It was an awful idea, perhaps the worst America has ever tried on foreign soil. But if you were in on it, it was great work while it lasted. Since time immemorial, the distribution of government largesse had followed a staid, paper-laden procedure in which the federal government would post the details of a contract in periodicals like Commerce Business Daily or, more recently, on the FedBizOpps Web site. Competitive bids were solicited and contracts were awarded in accordance with the labyrinthine print of the U.S. Code, a straightforward system that worked well enough before the Bush years that, as one lawyer puts it, you could "count the number of cases of criminal fraud on the fingers of one hand."

There were exceptions to the rule, of course -- emergencies that required immediate awards, contracts where there was only one available source of materials or labor, classified deals that involved national security. What no one knew at the beginning of the war was that the Bush administration had essentially decided to treat the entire Iraqi theater as an exception to the rules. All you had to do was get to Iraq and the game was on.

But getting there wasn't easy. To travel to Iraq, would-be contractors needed permission from the Bush administration, which was far from blind in its appraisal of applicants. In a much-ballyhooed example of favoritism, the White House originally installed a clown named Jim O'Beirne at the relevant evaluation desk in the Department of Defense. O'Beirne proved to be a classic Bush villain, a moron's moron who judged applicants not on their Arabic skills or their relevant expertise but on their Republican bona fides; he sent a twenty-four-year-old who had never worked in finance to manage the reopening of the Iraqi stock exchange, and appointed a recent graduate of an evangelical university for home-schooled kids who had no accounting experience to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget. James K. Haveman, who had served as Michigan's community-health director under a GOP governor, was put in charge of rehabilitating Iraq's health-care system and decided that what this war-ravaged, malnourished, sanitation-deficient country most urgently needed was … an anti-smoking campaign.

Town-selectmen types like Haveman weren't the only people who got passes to enter Iraq in the first few years. The administration also greenlighted brash, modern-day forty-niners like Scott Custer and Mike Battles, a pair of ex-Army officers and bottom-rank Republican pols (Battles had run for Congress in Rhode Island and had been a Fox News commentator) who had decided to form a security company called Custer Battles and make it big in Iraq. "Battles knew some people from his congressional run, and that's how they got there," says Alan Grayson, an attorney who led a whistle-blower lawsuit against the pair for defrauding the government.

Before coming to Iraq, Custer Battles hadn't done even a million dollars in business. The company's own Web site brags that Battles had to borrow cab fare from Jordan to Iraq and arrived in Baghdad with less than $500 in his pocket. But he had good timing, arriving just as a security contract for Baghdad International Airport was being "put up" for bid. The company site raves that Custer spent "three sleepless nights" penning an offer that impressed the CPA enough to hand the partners $2 million in cash, which Battles promptly stuffed into a duffel bag and drove to deposit in a Lebanese bank.

Custer Battles had lucked into a sort of Willy Wonka's paradise for contractors, where a small pool of Republican-friendly businessmen would basically hang around the Green Zone waiting for a contracting agency to come up with a work order. In the early days of the war, the idea of "competition" was a farce, with deals handed out so quickly that there was no possibility of making rational or fairly priced estimates. According to those familiar with the process, contracting agencies would request phony "bids" from several contractors, even though the winner had been picked in advance. "The losers would play ball because they knew that eventually it would be their turn to be the winner," says Grayson.

To make such deals legal, someone in the military would simply sign a piece of paper invoking an exception. "I know one guy whose business was buying weapons on the black market for contractors," says Pratap Chatterjee, a writer who has spent months in the Mideast researching a forthcoming book on Iraq contracts. "It's illegal -- but he got military people to sign papers allowing him to do it."

The system not only had the advantage of eliminating red tape in a war zone, it also encouraged the "entrepreneurship" of patriots like Custer and Battles, who went from bumming cab fare to doing $100 million in government contracts practically overnight. And what business they did! The bid that Custer claimed to have spent "three sleepless nights" putting together was later described by Col. Richard Ballard, then the inspector general of the Army, as looking "like something that you and I would write over a bottle of vodka, complete with all the spelling and syntax errors and annexes to be filled in later." The two simply "presented it the next day and then got awarded about a $15 million contract."

The deal charged Custer Battles with the responsibility to perform airport security for civilian flights. But there were never any civilian flights into Baghdad's airport during the life of their contract, so the CPA gave them a job managing an airport checkpoint, which they failed miserably. They were also given scads of money to buy expensive X-ray equipment and set up an advanced canine bomb-sniffing system, but they never bought the equipment. As for the dog, Ballard reported, "I eventually saw one dog. The dog did not appear to be a certified, trained dog." When the dog was brought to the checkpoint, he added, it would lie down and "refuse to sniff the vehicles" -- as outstanding a metaphor for U.S. contractor performance in Iraq as has yet been produced.

Like most contractors, Custer Battles was on a cost-plus arrangement, which means its profits were guaranteed to rise with its spending. But according to testimony by officials and former employees, the partners also charged the government millions by making out phony invoices to shell companies they controlled. In another stroke of genius, they found a bunch of abandoned Iraqi Airways forklifts on airport property, repainted them to disguise the company markings and billed them to U.S. taxpayers as new equipment. Every time they scratched their asses, they earned; there was so much money around for contractors, officials literally used $100,000 wads of cash as toys. "Yes -- $100 bills in plastic wrap," Frank Willis, a former CPA official, acknowledged in Senate testimony about Custer Battles. "We played football with the plastic-wrapped bricks for a little while."

The Custer Battles show only ended when the pair left a spreadsheet behind after a meeting with CPA officials -- a spreadsheet that scrupulously detailed the pair's phony invoicing. "It was the worst case of fraud I've ever seen, hands down," says Grayson. "But it's also got to be the first instance in history of a defendant leaving behind a spreadsheet full of evidence of the crime."

But even being the clumsiest war profiteers of all time was not enough to bring swift justice upon the heads of Mr. Custer and Mr. Battles -- and this is where the story of America's reconstruction effort gets really interesting. The Bush administration not only refused to prosecute the pair -- it actually tried to stop a lawsuit filed against the contractors by whistle-blowers hoping to recover the stolen money. The administration argued that Custer Battles could not be found guilty of defrauding the U.S. government because the CPA was not part of the U.S. government. When the lawsuit went forward despite the administration's objections, Custer and Battles mounted a defense that recalled Nuremberg and Lt. Calley, arguing that they could not be guilty of theft since it was done with the government's approval.

The jury disagreed, finding Custer Battles guilty of ripping off taxpayers. But the verdict was set aside by T.S. Ellis III, a federal judge who cited the administration's "the CPA is not us" argument. The very fact that private contractors, aided by the government itself, could evade conviction for what even Ellis, a Reagan-appointed judge, called "significant" evidence of fraud, says everything you need to know about the true nature of the war we are fighting in Iraq. Is it really possible to bilk American taxpayers for repainted forklifts stolen from Iraqi Airways and claim that you were just following orders? It is, when your commander in chief is George W. Bush.

There isn't a brazen, two-bit, purse-snatching money caper you can think of that didn't happen at least 10,000 times with your tax dollars in Iraq. At the very outset of the occupation, when L. Paul Bremer was installed as head of the CPA, one of his first brilliant ideas for managing the country was to have $12 billion in cash flown into Baghdad on huge wooden pallets and stored in palaces and government buildings. To pay contractors, he'd have agents go to the various stashes -- a pile of $200 million in one of Saddam's former palaces was watched by a single soldier, who left the key to the vault in a backpack on his desk when he went out to lunch -- withdraw the money, then crisscross the country to pay the bills. When desperate auditors later tried to trace the paths of the money, one agent could account for only $6,306,836 of some $23 million he'd withdrawn. Bremer's office "acknowledged not having any supporting documentation" for $25 million given to a different agent. A ministry that claimed to have paid 8,206 guards was able to document payouts to only 602. An agent who was told by auditors that he still owed $1,878,870 magically produced exactly that amount, which, as the auditors dryly noted, "suggests that the agent had a reserve of cash."

In short, some $8.8 billion of the $12 billion proved impossible to find. "Who in their right mind would send 360 tons of cash into a war zone?" asked Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight Committee. "But that's exactly what our government did."

Because contractors were paid on cost-plus arrangements, they had a powerful incentive to spend to the hilt. The undisputed master of milking the system is KBR, the former Halliburton subsidiary so ubiquitous in Iraq that soldiers even encounter its customer-survey sheets in outhouses. The company has been exposed by whistle-blowers in numerous Senate hearings for everything from double-charging taxpayers for $617,000 worth of sodas to overcharging the government 600 percent for fuel shipments. When things went wrong, KBR simply scrapped expensive gear: The company dumped 50,000 pounds of nails in the desert because they were too short, and left the Army no choice but to set fire to a supply truck that had a flat tire. "They did not have the proper wrench to change the tire," an Iraq vet named Richard Murphy told investigators, "so the decision was made to torch the truck."

In perhaps the ultimate example of military capitalism, KBR reportedly ran convoys of empty trucks back and forth across the insurgent-laden desert, pointlessly risking the lives of soldiers and drivers so the company could charge the taxpayer for its phantom deliveries. Truckers for KBR, knowing full well that the trips were bullshit, derisively referred to their cargo as "sailboat fuel."

In Fallujah, where the company was paid based on how many soldiers used the base rec center, KBR supervisors ordered employees to juke the head count by taking an hourly tally of every soldier in the facility. "They were counting the same soldier five, six, seven times," says Linda Warren, a former postal worker who was employed by KBR in Fallujah. "I was even directed to count every empty bottle of water left behind in the facility as though they were troops who had been there."

Yet for all the money KBR charged taxpayers for the rec center, it didn't provide much in the way of services to the soldiers engaged in the heaviest fighting of the war. When Warren ordered a karaoke machine, the company gave her a cardboard box stuffed with jumbled-up electronic components. "We had to borrow laptops from the troops to set up a music night," says Warren, who had a son serving in Fallujah at the time. "These boys needed R&R more than anything, but the company wouldn't spend a dime." (KBR refused requests for an interview, but has denied that it inflated troop counts or committed other wrongdoing in Iraq.)

One of the most dependable methods for burning taxpayer funds was simply to do nothing. After securing a contract in Iraq, companies would mobilize their teams, rush them into the war zone and then wait, citing the security situation or delayed paperwork -- all the while charging the government for housing, meals and other expenses. Last year, a government audit of twelve major contracts awarded to KBR, Parsons and other companies found that idle time often accounted for more than half of a contract's total costs. In one deal awarded to KBR, the company's "indirect" administrative costs were $52.7 million, and its direct costs -- the costs associated with the actual job -- were only $13.4 million.

Companies jacked up the costs even higher by hiring out layers of subcontractors to do their work for them. In some cases, each subcontractor had its own cost-plus arrangement. "We called those 'cascading contracts,' " says Rep. Van Hollen. "Each subcontractor piles on a lot of costs, and eventually they would snowball into a huge payout. It was a green light for waste."

In March 2004, Parsons -- the firm represented by Earnest O. Robbins -- was given nearly $1 million to build a fire station in Ainkawa, a small Christian community in one of the safest parts of Iraq. Parsons subcontracted the design to a British company called TPS Consult and the construction to a California firm called Innovative Technical Solutions Inc. ITSI, in turn, hired an Iraqi outfit called Zozik to do the actual labor.

A year and a half later, government auditors visited the site and found that the fire station was less than half finished. What little had been built was marred by serious design flaws, including concrete columns so shoddily constructed that they were riddled with holes that looked like "honeycombing." But getting the fuck-ups fixed proved problematic. The auditors "made a request that was sent to the Army Corps, which delivered it to Parsons, who then asked ITSI, which asked TPS Consult to check on the work done by Zozik," writes Chatterjee, who describes the mess in his forthcoming book, Baghdad Bonanza. The multiple layers of subcontractors made it almost impossible to resolve the issue -- and every day the delays dragged on meant more money for the companies.

Sometimes the government simply handed out money to companies it made up out of thin air. In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers found itself unable to award contracts by the September deadline imposed by Congress, meaning it would have to "de-obligate" the money and return it to the government. Rather than suffer that awful fate, the corps obligated $362 million -- spread out over ninety-six different contracts -- to "Dummy Vendor." In their report on the mess, auditors noted that money to nobody "does not constitute proper obligations."

But even obligating money to no one was better than what sometimes happened in Iraq: handing out U.S. funds to the enemy. Since the beginning of the war, rumors have abounded about contractors paying protection money to insurgents to avoid attacks. No less an authority than Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, claimed that such payoffs are a "significant source" of income for Al Qaeda. Moreover, when things go missing in Iraq -- like bricks of $100 bills, or weapons, or trucks -- it is a fair assumption that some of the wayward booty ends up in the wrong hands. In July, a federal audit found that 190,000 weapons are missing in Iraq -- nearly one out of every three arms supplied by the United States. "These weapons almost certainly ended up on the black market, where they are repurchased by insurgents," says Chatterjee.

For all the creative ways that contractors came up with to waste, mismanage and steal public money in Iraq, the standard remained good old-fashioned fucking up. Take the case of the Basra Children's Hospital, a much-ballyhooed "do-gooder" project championed by Laura Bush and Condi Rice. This was exactly the sort of grandstanding, self-serving, indulgent and ultimately useless project that tended to get the go-ahead under reconstruction. Like the expensive telephone-based disease-notification database approved for use in hospitals without telephones, or the natural-gas-powered electricity turbines greenlighted for installation in a country without ready sources of natural gas, the Basra Children's Hospital was a state-of-the-art medical facility set to be built in a town without safe drinking water. "Why build a hospital for kids, when the kids have no clean water?" said Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican from Arizona.

Bechtel was given $50 million to build the hospital -- but a year later, with the price tag soaring to $169 million, the company was pulled off the project without a single bed being ready for use. The government was unfazed: Bechtel, explained USAID spokesman David Snider, was "under a 'term contract,' which means their job is over when their money ends."

Their job is over when their money ends. When I call Snider to clarify this amazing statement, he declines to discuss the matter further. But if you look over the history of the Iraqi reconstruction effort, you will find versions of this excuse everywhere. When Custer Battles was caught delivering broken trucks to the Army, a military official says the company told him, "We were only told we had to deliver the trucks. The contract doesn't say they had to work."

Such excuses speak to a monstrous vacuum of patriotism; it would be hard to imagine contractors being so blithely disinterested in results during World War II, where every wasted dollar might mean another American boy dead from gangrene in the Ardennes. But the rampant waste of money and resources also suggests a widespread contempt for the ostensible "purpose" of our presence in Iraq. Asked to cast a vote for the war effort, contractors responded by swiping everything they could get their hands on -- and the administration's acquiescence in their thievery suggests that it, too, saw making a buck as the true mission of the war. Two witnesses scheduled to testify before Congress against Custer Battles ultimately declined not only because they had received death threats but because they, too, were contractors and feared that they would be shut out of future government deals. To repeat: Witnesses were afraid to testify in an effort to recover government funds because they feared reprisal from the government.

The Bush administration's lack of interest in recovering stolen funds is one of the great scandals of the war. The White House has failed to litigate a single case against a contractor under the False Claims Act and has not sued anybody for breach of contract. It even declined to join in a lawsuit filed by whistle-blowers who are accusing KBR of improper invoicing in Fallujah. "For all the Bush administration claims to do in the war against terrorism," Grayson said in congressional testimony, "it is a no-show in the war against war profiteers." In nearly five years of some of the worst graft and looting in American history, the administration has recovered less than $6 million.

What's more, when anyone in the government tried to question what contractors were up to with taxpayer money, they were immediately blackballed and treated like an enemy. Take the case of Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse, an outspoken and energetic woman of sixty-three who served as the chief procurement executive for the Army Corps of Engineers. In her position, Greenhouse was responsible for signing off on sole-source contracts -- those awarded without competitive bids and thus most prone to corruption. Long before Iraq, she had begun to notice favoritism in the awarding of contracts to KBR, which was careful to recruit executives who had served in the military. "That was why I joined the corps: to stop this kind of clubby contracting," she says.

A few weeks before the Iraq War started, Greenhouse was asked to sign off on the contract to restore Iraqi oil. The deal, she noticed, was suspicious on a number of fronts. For one thing, the company that had designed the project, KBR, was the same company that was being awarded the contract -- a highly unusual and improper situation. For another, the corps wanted to award a massive "emergency" contract to KBR with no competition for up to five years, which Greenhouse thought was crazy. Who ever heard of a five-year emergency? After auditing the deal, the Pentagon found that KBR had overcharged the government $61 million for fuel. "The abuse related to contracts awarded to KBR," Greenhouse testified before the Senate, "represents the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career."

And how did her superiors in the Pentagon respond to the wrongdoing highlighted by their own chief procurement officer? First they gave KBR a waiver for the overbilling, blaming the problem on an Iraqi subcontractor. Then they dealt with Greenhouse by demoting her and cutting her salary, citing a negative performance review. The retaliation sent a clear message to any would-be whistle-blowers. "It puts a chill on you," Greenhouse says. "People are scared stiff."

They were scared stiff in Iraq, too, and for good reason. When civilian employees complained about looting or other improprieties, contractors sometimes threatened to throw them outside the gates of their bases -- a life-threatening situation for any American. Robert Isakson, a former FBI agent who worked for Custer Battles, says that when he refused to go along with one scam involving a dummy company in Lebanon, he was detained by company security guards, who seized his ID badge and barred him from the base in Baghdad. He eventually had to make a hazardous, Papillon-esque journey across hostile Iraq to Jordan just to survive. (Custer Battles denies the charge.)

James Garrison, who worked at a KBR ice plant in Al Asad, recalls an incident when Indian employees threatened to go on strike: "They pulled a bus up, got them in there and said, 'We'll ship you outside the front gate if you want to go on strike.' " Not surprisingly, the workers changed their mind about a work stoppage.

You know the old adage: You don't pay a hooker to spend the night, you pay her to leave in the morning. That maxim also applies to civilian workers in Iraq. A soldier is a citizen with rights, a man to be treated with honor and respect as a protector of us all; if one loses a limb, you've got to take care of him, in theory for his whole life. But a mercenary is just another piece of equipment you can bill to the taxpayer: If one is hurt on the job, you can just throw it away and buy another one. Today there are more civilians working for private contractors in Iraq than there are troops on the ground. The totality of the thievery in Iraq is such that even the honor of patriotic service has been stolen -- we've replaced soldiers and heroes with disposable commodities, men we expected to give us a big bang for a buck and to never call us again.

Russell Skoug, who worked as a refrigeration technician for a contractor called Wolfpack, found that out the hard way. These days Skoug is back home in Diboll, Texas, and he doesn't move around much; he considers it a big accomplishment if he can make it to his mailbox and back once a day. "I'm doing a lot if I can do that much," he says, laughing a little.

A year ago, on September 11th, Skoug was working for Wolfpack at a base in Heet, Iraq. It was a convoy day -- trucks braved the trip in and out of the base every third day -- and Skoug had a generator he needed to fix. So he agreed to make a run to Al Asad. "If I would've realized that it was September 11th, I never would've went out," he says. It would turn out to be the last run he would ever make in Iraq.

An Air Force vet, Skoug had come to Iraq as a civilian to repair refrigeration units and air conditioners for a KBR subcontractor called LSI. But when he arrived, he discovered that LSI had hired him to fix Humvees. "I didn't know jack-squat about Humvees," he says. "I could maybe change the oil, that was it." (Asked about Skoug's additional assignment, KBR boasted: "Part of the reason for our success is our ability to employ individuals with multiple capabilities.")

Working with him on his crew were two other refrigeration technicians, neither of whom knew anything about fixing Humvees. Since Skoug and most of his co-workers had worked for KBR in Afghanistan, they were familiar with cost-plus contracting. The buzz around the base was that cost-plus was the reason LSI was hiring air-conditioning guys to work on unfamiliar military equipment at a cost to the taxpayer of $80,000 a year. "They was doing the same thing as KBR: just filling the body count," says Skoug.

Thanks to low troop levels, all the military repair guys had been pressed into service to fight the war, so Skoug was forced to sit in the military storeroom on the base and study vehicle manuals that, as a civilian, he wasn't allowed to check out of the building. That was how America fought terrorism in Iraq: It hired civilian air-conditioning techs to fix Humvees using the instruction manual while the real Humvee repairmen, earning a third of what the helpless civilians were paid, drove around in circles outside the wire waiting to get blown up by insurgents.

After much pleading and cajoling, Skoug managed to convince LSI to let him repair some refrigeration units. But it turned out that the company didn't have any tools for the job. "They gave me a screwdriver and a Leatherman, and that's it," he recalls. "We didn't even have freon gauges." When Skoug managed to scrounge and cannibalize parts to get the job done, he impressed the executives at Wolfpack enough to hire him away from LSI for $10,000 a month. The job required Skoug, who had been given no formal security training, to travel regularly on dangerous convoys between bases. Wolfpack issued him an armored vehicle, a Yugoslav-made AK-47 and a handgun, and wished him luck.

For nearly a year, Skoug did the job, trying at each stop to overcome the hostility that many troops felt for civilian contractors who surfed the Internet and played pool and watched movies all day for big dollars while soldiers carrying seventy-pound packs of gear labored in huts with broken air conditioning the civilian techs couldn't be bothered to repair. "They'd have the easiest thing to fix, and they wouldn't do it," Skoug says. "They'd write that they'd fixed it or that they just needed a part and then just leave it." At Haditha Dam, Skoug witnessed a near-brawl after some Marines, trying to get some sleep after returning from patrol, couldn't get a group of "KBR dudes" to turn down the television in a common area late at night.

Toward the end of Skoug's stay, insurgent activity in his area increased to the point where the soldiers leading his convoys would often drive only at night and without lights. Skoug and his co-workers asked Wolfpack to provide them with night-vision goggles that cost as little as $1,000 a pair, but the company refused. "Their attitude was, we don't need 'em and we're not buying 'em," says Thomas Lane, a Wolfpack employee who served as Skoug's security man on the night of September 11th.

On that evening, the soldiers leading the convoy refused to let Skoug drive his own vehicle back to Heet without night-vision goggles. So a soldier took Skoug's car, and Skoug was forced to be a passenger in a military vehicle. "We start out the front gate, and I find out that the truck that I was in was the frickin' lead truck," he recalls. "And I'm going, 'Oh, great.' "

The bomb went off about a half-hour later, ripping through the truck floor and destroying four inches of Skoug's left femur. "The windshield looked like there was a film on it," he says. "I find out later it was a film -- it was blood and meat and stuff all over the windshield on the inside." Skoug was loaded into the back of a Humvee, his legs hanging out, and evacuated to an Army hospital in Germany before being airlifted back to the States.

When Skoug arrived, it was his wife, Linda, who had to handle all his affairs. She was the one who arranged for an air ambulance to take him to Houston, where she had persuaded an orthopedic hospital to admit him as a patient. She had to do this because almost right from the start, Wolfpack washed its hands of Russell Skoug. The insurance policy he had been given turned out to be useless -- the company denied all coverage, beginning with a $72,597 bill for his stay in the German hospital. Despite assurances from Wolfpack chief Mark Atwood that he would cover all Skoug's expenses, neither he nor the insurance company would pay for the $16,000 trip in the air ambulance. Nobody paid for the operations Skoug had in Houston -- as many as three a day, every day for a month. And nobody paid for his subsequent rehab stint in another Houston hospital -- despite the fact that military law requires every company contracting with the government to fully insure all of its employees in the war zone.

Now that he's out, sitting at home on his couch with only partial use of his left hand and left leg, Skoug has a stack of unpaid medical bills almost three inches tall. As he speaks, he keeps fidgeting. He apologizes, explaining that he can't sit still for very long. Why? Because Skoug can no longer afford pain medication. "I take ibuprofen sometimes," he says, "but basically I just grin and bear it."

And here's where this story turns into something perfectly symbolic of everything that the war in Iraq stands for, a window into the soul of for-profit contractors who not only left behind a breathtaking legacy of fraud, waste and corruption but, through their calculating, greed-fueled hijacking of this generation's broadest and most far-reaching foreign-policy initiative, pushed America into previously unknown realms of moral insanity. When I contact Mark Atwood and ask him to explain how he could watch one of his best employees get blown up and crippled for life, and then cut him loose with debts totaling well over half a million dollars, Atwood, safe in his office in Kuwait City and contentedly suckling at the taxpayer teat, decides that answering this one question is just too much to ask of poor old him.

"Right now," Atwood says, "I just want some peace."

When Linda Skoug petitioned Atwood for help, he refused, pointing out that he had kept his now-useless employee on the payroll for four whole months before firing him. "After I have put forth to help you all out," he wrote in an e-mail, "you are going to get on me for your husband not having insurance." He even implied that Skoug had brought the accident upon himself by allowing the Army to place him at the head of the convoy: "He was not even suppose [sic] to be in the lead vehicle to begin with."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of the Iraq War in a nutshell. In the history of balls, the world has never seen anything like the private contractors George W. Bush summoned to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Collectively, they are the final, polished result of 231 years of natural selection in the crucible of American capitalism: a bureaucrat class capable of stealing the same dollar twice -- once from the taxpayer and once from a veteran in a wheelchair.

The explanations that contractors offer for all the missing dollars, all the myriad ways they looted the treasury and screwed guys like Russell Skoug, rank among the most diabolical, shameless, tongue-twisting bullshit in history. Going back over the various congressional hearings and trying to decipher the corporate responses to the mountains of thefts and fuck-ups is a thrilling intellectual journey, not unlike tackling the Pharaonic hieroglyphs or the mating chatter of colobus monkeys. Standing before Congress, contractors and the officials who are supposed to monitor them say things like "As long as we have the undefinitized contract issue that we have ... we will continue to see the same kinds of sustension rates" (translation: We can't get back any of the fucking money) and "The need for to-fitnessization was viewed as voluntary, and that was inaccurate as the general counsel to the Army observed in a June opinion" (translation: The contractor wasn't aware that he was required to keep costs down) and "If we don't know where we're trying to go and don't have measures, then we won't know how much longer it's going to take us to get there" (translation: There never was a plan in place, other than to let contractors rip off every dollar they could).

According to the most reliable estimates, we have doled out more than $500 billion for the war, as well as $44 billion for the Iraqi reconstruction effort. And what did America's contractors give us for that money? They built big steaming shit piles, set brand-new trucks on fire, drove back and forth across the desert for no reason at all and dumped bags of nails in ditches. For the most part, nobody at home cared, because war on some level is always a waste. But what happened in Iraq went beyond inefficiency, beyond fraud even. This was about the business of government being corrupted by the profit motive to such an extraordinary degree that now we all have to wonder how we will ever be able to depend on the state to do its job in the future. If catastrophic failure is worth billions, where's the incentive to deliver success? There's no profit in patriotism, no cost-plus angle on common decency. Sixty years after America liberated Europe, those are just words, and words don't pay the bills.

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/60950/

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Trip to the North Country; Don't Squeal on Government Corruption or You'll Go to Jail





ON A WHIM, Vonn and I decided to go up to the North Country yesterday, as it was one of those Perfect Ten days that we often get here in New England from late August to late September-- sunny, dry, a lovely breeze from the northwest, huge, man-o-war clouds, and the light sublime. I drove up to Vonn's house in Windham, NH, then we headed north from there, reaching the mountains about an hour later. It's amazing when you're hanging on the edge of a mountain, with a breathtaking view in front of you, to understand you're on the same road (Route 93) on which I'm frequently a prisoner in traffic, in Boston or Somerville, and surrounded by urban blight. Our first stop was the Flume Area in Franconia Notch Park, a brief I-gotta-pee respite (see pic above, of Mounts Lafayette, Liberty, etc); we got back in the car and headed north. We decided we'd drive up to Mount Washington (the highest peak in New England and third-highest peak east of the Mississippi, a truly massive mountain boasting the worst weather in the world-- for example, the highest wind speed ever recorded on earth, 230 MPH). We drove by the famnous Mount Washington Hotel, one of the few surviving 'Grand Dame' hotels from the time when the rich and famous from around the country would flock to the mountains for the holidays. We continued along Route 302, then stopped at Crawford Notch for our hike. There's a big Appalachian Mountain Club center there, as well as a store they run; a sign in the store told us the well-heeled visitors of yesteryear were waited on 'hand and foot.'

A Notch in the north country parlance is, as it sounds, a gap in the mountains. The Crawford Notch narrows amazingly at one point, then just drops on down, (see pic above, with Vonn) following the plunge of the Saco River beside it on its tumbling, cascading way to Portland (Maine) Harbor and the mighty waters of the North Atlantic. We found a flume (a mountain waterfall/cascade type brook, mostly vertical) tumbling down a mountain, called 'The Flume Cascade,' and decided to hike up it. It's hard to describe the severe angle of this rocky, boulder-ridden Stairway to Heaven; (see pic above, showing ledge-- that little ribbony thing far far below is Route 302): it's basically like rock climbing with a waterfall beside you, and occasionally the waterfall pauses for breath for a bit and forms into these lovely little pools, at which we bathed our hot and tired feet. The water was cold, as one would expect, but not icy, and felt wonderful. Each time we came to another little height in our ascent, there was, of course, one more above us, then another above that, than another above that, ad infinitum until, presumably, one reached the top of the mountain. These little tumbling cascades are the source of the Saco, which winds its way through the mountains of New Hampshire and the fields of Maine before emptying into the Atlantic 135 miles away. Funny to think that this mountain-top water tinkling and tumbling around us would soon make its way to the sea: balsams and white birches and solid New Hampshire granite were its companions now, soon to be replaced by sea turtles, whales, and ocean-going vessels. There were already, here and there amidst the dark green of the spruce, balsam, and birch, the shock of bright red or orange leaves-- autumn comes early to the high country. As we climbed higher up the mountain, the road below us (seemingly straight down at our feet far far down) the view expanded in front of us like a dream. It was as thrilling and exhilirating as it was unnerving: one little slip backwards and that would've been all she wrote. We thought we might see bears at some point (they're all over the North Woods) but such was not the case, although at one point my 'Spidey Sense' was tingling. We finally reached a height we didn't care to add to, rested for a bit enjoying the view and the intense beauty and quiet, then made our way back down, going through the woods instead so we wouldn't fall on the slippery wet rock. It was quite a little workout.

When we got back to the car, we continued down the Notch on Route 302, a breathtaking road, as Vonn wanted to show me an incredibly charming B & B owned by two gay men of left-leaning political persuasion (see pic above)-- he and Barry had stayed there once. It was very beautiful, replete with gardens (see pic) and a place I'd love to stay at some time. We reversed direction, reclimbed the Notch (passing the Willey House, the scene of an avalanche disaster in the early 1800's that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story 'The Ambitious Guest')then continued along 302 until we crossed into Vermont, passing once again the vast, brooding bulks of Mount Lafayette and Cannon Mountain. Before crossing into the Green Mountain State we came through the very charming hill-top town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire, which, the signs told us, is the Poetry Capital of New Hampshire. Well, now you know! I think Robert Frost, the late poet laureate who spoke at JFK's inauguration, lived here-- and how wistful and sad, really, to recall a much more enlightened time when Presidents of the United States were that educated and civil that they had poets speak at their inaugurations. From Robert Frost to My Pet Goat-- urrrgh, talk about devolution.

We headed north again once we reached 93, as Vonn wanted to show me the T.C. Moore Dam, where a part of the Connecticutt River (which forms the border between NH and Vermont)has been dammed to create this beautiful lake with mountains all round. A hydroelectric plant stands at one end, providing power for Trans Canada-- yes, we were that close to the border. Then we turned around and, after stopping in Lincoln, NH (the jumping off point for the Kangamangus Highway, one of the most beautiful in the World)for a pit stop, headed back to Vonn's, having racked up over 300 miles on our little but lovely day trip.

Here's the story on Government Whistleblowers being punished, from Forbes Magazine: what a disgusting disgrace-- while our bridges and roads collapse, and our schools go unfunded, and our people go uninsured, friends of this administration, (Halliburton, et al) unsatisfied by the billions they are already getting from us, are stealing us blind-- and woe to those heroes who bring these scurrying bugs to public view!

One after another, the men and women who have stepped forward to report corruption in the massive effort to rebuild Iraq have been vilified, fired and demoted.

Or worse.

For daring to report illegal arms sales, Navy veteran Donald Vance says he was imprisoned by the American military in a security compound outside Baghdad and subjected to harsh interrogation methods.

There were times, huddled on the floor in solitary confinement with that head-banging music blaring dawn to dusk and interrogators yelling the same questions over and over, that Vance began to wish he had just kept his mouth shut.

He had thought he was doing a good and noble thing when he started telling the FBI about the guns and the land mines and the rocket-launchers - all of them being sold for cash, no receipts necessary, he said. He told a federal agent the buyers were Iraqi insurgents, American soldiers, State Department workers, and Iraqi embassy and ministry employees.

The seller, he claimed, was the Iraqi-owned company he worked for, Shield Group Security Co.

"It was a Wal-Mart (nyse: WMT - news - people ) for guns," he says. "It was all illegal and everyone knew it."

So Vance says he blew the whistle, supplying photos and documents and other intelligence to an FBI agent in his hometown of Chicago because he didn't know whom to trust in Iraq.

For his trouble, he says, he got 97 days in Camp Cropper, an American military prison outside Baghdad that once held Saddam Hussein, and he was classified a security detainee.

Also held was colleague Nathan Ertel, who helped Vance gather evidence documenting the sales, according to a federal lawsuit both have filed in Chicago, alleging they were illegally imprisoned and subjected to physical and mental interrogation tactics "reserved for terrorists and so-called enemy combatants."

Corruption has long plagued Iraq reconstruction. Hundreds of projects may never be finished, including repairs to the country's oil pipelines and electricity system. Congress gave more than $30 billion to rebuild Iraq, and at least $8.8 billion of it has disappeared, according to a government reconstruction audit.

Despite this staggering mess, there are no noble outcomes for those who have blown the whistle, according to a review of such cases by The Associated Press.

"If you do it, you will be destroyed," said William Weaver, professor of political science at the University of Texas-El Paso and senior advisor to the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition.

"Reconstruction is so rife with corruption. Sometimes people ask me, `Should I do this?' And my answer is no. If they're married, they'll lose their family. They will lose their jobs. They will lose everything," Weaver said.

They have been fired or demoted, shunned by colleagues, and denied government support in whistleblower lawsuits filed against contracting firms.

"The only way we can find out what is going on is for someone to come forward and let us know," said Beth Daley of the Project on Government Oversight, an independent, nonprofit group that investigates corruption. "But when they do, the weight of the government comes down on them. The message is, 'Don't blow the whistle or we'll make your life hell.'

"It's heartbreaking," Daley said. "There is an even greater need for whistleblowers now. But they are made into public martyrs. It's a disgrace. Their lives get ruined."

Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse knows this only too well. As the highest-ranking civilian contracting officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she testified before a congressional committee in 2005 that she found widespread fraud in multibillion-dollar rebuilding contracts awarded to former Halliburton (nyse: HAL - news - people ) subsidiary KBR (nyse: KBR - news - people ).

Soon after, Greenhouse was demoted. She now sits in a tiny cubicle in a different department with very little to do and no decision-making authority, at the end of an otherwise exemplary 20-year career.

People she has known for years no longer speak to her.

"It's just amazing how we say we want to remove fraud from our government, then we gag people who are just trying to stand up and do the right thing," she says.

In her demotion, her supervisors said she was performing poorly. "They just wanted to get rid of me," she says softly. The Army Corps of Engineers denies her claims.

"You just don't have happy endings," said Weaver. "She was a wonderful example of a federal employee. They just completely creamed her. In the end, no one followed up, no one cared."

But Greenhouse regrets nothing. "I have the courage to say what needs to be said. I paid the price," she says.

Then there is Robert Isakson, who filed a whistleblower suit against contractor Custer Battles in 2004, alleging the company - with which he was briefly associated - bilked the U.S. government out of tens of millions of dollars by filing fake invoices and padding other bills for reconstruction work.

He and his co-plaintiff, William Baldwin, a former employee fired by the firm, doggedly pursued the suit for two years, gathering evidence on their own and flying overseas to obtain more information from witnesses. Eventually, a federal jury agreed with them and awarded a $10 million judgment against the now-defunct firm, which had denied all wrongdoing.

It was the first civil verdict for Iraq reconstruction fraud.

But in 2006, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III overturned the jury award. He said Isakson and Baldwin failed to prove that the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-backed occupier of Iraq for 14 months, was part of the U.S. government.

Not a single Iraq whistleblower suit has gone to trial since.

"It's a sad, heartbreaking comment on the system," said Isakson, a former FBI agent who owns an international contracting company based in Alabama. "I tried to help the government, and the government didn't seem to care."


One way to blow the whistle is to file a "qui tam" lawsuit (taken from the Latin phrase "he who sues for the king, as well as for himself") under the federal False Claims Act.

Signed by Abraham Lincoln in response to military contractors selling defective products to the Union Army, the act allows private citizens to sue on the government's behalf.

The government has the option to sign on, with all plaintiffs receiving a percentage of monetary damages, which are tripled in these suits.

It can be a straightforward and effective way to recoup federal funds lost to fraud. In the past, the Justice Department has joined several such cases and won. They included instances of Medicare and Medicaid overbilling, and padded invoices from domestic contractors.

But the government has not joined a single quit tam suit alleging Iraq reconstruction abuse, estimated in the tens of millions. At least a dozen have been filed since 2004.

"It taints these cases," said attorney Alan Grayson, who filed the Custer Battles suit and several others like it. "If the government won't sign on, then it can't be a very good case - that's the effect it has on judges."

The Justice Department declined comment.

Most of the lawsuits are brought by former employees of giant firms. Some plaintiffs have testified before members of Congress, providing examples of fraud they say they witnessed and the retaliation they experienced after speaking up.

Julie McBride testified last year that as a "morale, welfare and recreation coordinator" at Camp Fallujah, she saw KBR exaggerate costs by double- and triple-counting the number of soldiers who used recreational facilities.

She also said the company took supplies destined for a Super Bowl party for U.S. troops and instead used them to stage a celebration for themselves.

"After I voiced my concerns about what I believed to be accounting fraud, Halliburton placed me under guard and kept me in seclusion," she told the committee. "My property was searched, and I was specifically told that I was not allowed to speak to any member of the U.S. military. I remained under guard until I was flown out of the country."

Halliburton and KBR denied her testimony.

She also has filed a whistleblower suit. The Justice Department has said it would not join the action. But last month, a federal judge refused a motion by KBR to dismiss the lawsuit.


Donald Vance, the contractor and Navy veteran detained in Iraq after he blew the whistle on his company's weapons sales, says he has stopped talking to the federal government.

Navy Capt. John Fleming, a spokesman for U.S. detention operations in Iraq, confirmed the detentions but said he could provide no further details because of the lawsuit.

According to their suit, Vance and Ertel gathered photographs and documents, which Vance fed to Chicago FBI agent Travis Carlisle for six months beginning in October 2005. Carlisle, reached by phone at Chicago's FBI field office, declined comment. An agency spokesman also would not comment.

The Iraqi company has since disbanded, according the suit.

Vance said things went terribly wrong in April 2006, when he and Ertel were stripped of their security passes and confined to the company compound.

Panicking, Vance said, he called the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where hostage experts got on the phone and told him "you're about to be kidnapped. Lock yourself in a room with all the weapons you can get your hands on.'"

The military sent a Special Forces team to rescue them, Vance said, and the two men showed the soldiers where the weapons caches were stored. At the embassy, the men were debriefed and allowed to sleep for a few hours. "I thought I was among friends," Vance said.

The men said they were cuffed and hooded and driven to Camp Cropper, where Vance was held for nearly three months and his colleague for a little more than a month. Eventually, their jailers said they were being held as security internees because their employer was suspected of selling weapons to terrorists and insurgents, the lawsuit said.

The prisoners said they repeatedly told interrogators to contact Carlisle in Chicago. "One set of interrogators told us that Travis Carlisle doesn't exist. Then some others would say, 'He says he doesn't know who you are,'" Vance said.

Released first was Ertel, who has returned to work in Iraq for a different company. Vance said he has never learned why he was held longer. His own interrogations, he said, seemed focused on why he reported his information to someone outside Iraq.

And then one day, without explanation, he was released.

"They drove me to Baghdad International Airport and dumped me," he said.

When he got home, he decided to never call the FBI again. He called a lawyer, instead.

"There's an unspoken rule in Baghdad," he said. "Don't snitch on people and don't burn bridges."

For doing both, Vance said, he paid with 97 days of his life.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ghost Cats in Greenfield, Piping Plovers on Rever Beach



I SUPPOSE THE NEXT THING WE'LL HEAR ABOUT IS NESSIE IN THE MYSTIC RIVER. But this is true-- how wonderful, though a bit bizarre. This is from this morning's Globe. (Article below)

And speaking of rara avis, reports persist of mountain lions in the state. The cougar (Puma concolor) is the world's fourth largest cat species and the second largest cat in the New World. Here in New England it goes by many names-- Catamount, Ghost Cat, Eastern Mountain Lion, Painter, Panther, etc. It has one of the largest ranges in the world, extending from southern Canada to the tip of South America. In North America, cougars were formerly distributed from coast to coast. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the East was largely cleared for agriculture and the forests that remained were heavily logged. Cougar prey populations (mostly deer) were hunted to near extirpation in many states. This combination of habitat destruction, prey decimation, and extensive large predator control programs resulted in the elimination of the cougar from most of the East, and restricted their distribution in the West to wilderness areas largely devoid of human influence. A remnant poppulation lives on in Florida and is called the Florida Panther-- there are thought to be less than 100 of these magnificent cats left in the overdeveloped Sunshine State (and still overdeveloping at last look)-- this year alone, 13 cougars have been killed in Florida on roads and highways.

The cougars seen in New England (there have been about five 'confirmed' sightings, and hundreds unconfirmed, all told) could be a remnant population, or escaped pets, or travelers from the west, or a combination thereof-- the cougar found at Quabbin had its DNA checked, which showed North American ancestry on one side, and South American on the other). It should be noted that the same skepticism from New England wildlife officials regarding the cougar was first applied when coyotes began returning to this area some years ago-- and now coyotes are in EVERY town in the Commonwealth-- I've seen them myself on two occasions in Happy Land. My, I wonder if the day will come when we spot a mountain lion in the Middlesex Fells Reservation!! That would be-- well, wild.

Cougar populations now appear to be expanding from rugged, undeveloped areas into more human-dominated landscapes. Since 1990, increasing cougar presence has been especially evident in the Midwest. Cougar sightings, tracks, feces, and vehicle- or hunter-caused mortalities have been confirmed by wildlife biologists in several Midwestern states. It is uncertain whether confirmed Midwestern cougars represent individuals re-colonizing from the West, or former captives that have adapted to the wild. Regardless, the long-distance dispersal capabilities of cougars (some radio-collared cougars have been tracked traveling over 900 miles), proximity of this region to established populations, recent cougar confirmations, and opinions of cougar experts indicates re-colonization of the Midwest is certainly possible. And fromt he Midwest they would come, of course, eastward. Further, western cougar populations appear to be growing, which may partially explain their expansion into the Midwest.

There have been many cougar sightings in New England, especially of late. The 'official' stance of state wildlife boards has been that the eastern cougar is extinct. Well...maybe. At the Quabbin Reservoir in 1997, feces was analyzed and determined to be that of a cougar. And this is from the May 10, 2007 edition of the Greenfield Recorder (Greenfield is one of the towns we visited during my first Western Swing, and where my friend Glenn Johnson lives):

Just before 6 a.m. a week ago today, Amanda Gaffigan Steele of Plainfield was taking a circuitous route to work in Hatfield, traveling toward Greenfield on Route 2 near the overgrown Mohawk Mountain ski trails when she noticed something unusual crossing the road near Jed's Cider Mill. Of a grayish-brown hue, the large animal carried a long tail that curled gently toward the awaking sky. No doubt about it: big cat.

''You're not gonna put my name in the paper, are you?'' she asked, when called Monday night at home.

''That's the plan,'' I responded.

''Well, OK, but I hope people don't think I'm crazy.''

It's a fear cougar sightings stir in most witnesses' souls, that of being written off as some sort of lunatic. But still the reports keep coming, and coming, and coming.

You be the judge of the reporters' sanity.

Known to friends as Mandy, the pregnant, 34-year old Shelburne Falls native had just passed ''the moccasin place'' on the Mohawk Trail when the animal appeared in the road, crossing slowly from out of the brook hole near Jed's toward the old Schechterle place. In no great hurry, it reached the guardrail, walked gracefully over it and disappeared into the pastel-green, spring forest to Steele's right.

''I never got a look at its face because it was looking the other way, but I know what I saw and it wasn't a bobcat or a coy dog or a deer or a bear,'' Steele said. ''What I noticed most was the long tail, curved upward. It was a mountain lion. I couldn't believe my eyes.''

Overcome by excitement, Steele called her mother, Bunny Tirrell, waking her from a sound sleep at her Shelburne Falls home.

''She told me she was amazed by its powerful shoulders,'' Tirrell reported. ''Big, powerful shoulders. That's what I recall her telling me.''

Her mom wasn't the only person she phoned that morning. She also called her grandfather, Bill Gaffigan, who lives right there overlooking Cricket Field in Shelburne Falls, Buckland side. An experienced hunter of coons, bobcats and deer, you name it, Old Bill's probably hunted it.

''I was reluctant to call him because he's apt to give me a hard time,'' Steele admitted. ''But not this time. He believed me. Said people have been seeing mountain lions around here lately.''

She learned later that not only have there been many recent mountain lion sightings, there have been others right around where she saw hers. And that's a fact. Many reports have come from within a mile or two of hers; even a track in the mud in an old apple orchard a stone's throw from Jed's, one a veteran local outdoorsman identified as a cougar's, only to be overruled by state wildlife officials who identified it from photos as a dog track. Big dog.

The local outdoorsman still doesn't buy it.

''I say it was a cougar track,'' he says whenever asked.

Where the beast Steele encountered last week will show up next is anyone's guess. Could be Shelburne or Conway or Becket or Saratoga for that matter. Big cats cover a lot of territory. But if it happens to cross your path, don't bother alerting the authorities. They have a pat answer written in bold letters across their desktop calendar pads; it reads: ''Eastern cougars have been extinct for nearly a century.''

Call it ''the official stance.''

Go figure.

For more info on cougars, go to www.easterncougar.org



Okay, here's the Globe article on Piping Plovers at Revere Beach:



One hot beach chick

Piping plovers breed hope, joy in Revere
By April Yee, Globe Correspondent | August 27, 2007

REVERE -- They fear for the life of this little plover, and come in shifts to the beach to track the feathery puff as it skitters across the sand. The baby piping plover's human guardians need to defend this vulnerable stretch of beach from predators, because the tiny bird is oblivious to the danger.

The chick is living proof that, for the first time since anyone can remember, the birds once in danger of extinction have made a home at one of the most trafficked beaches in the state, giving birdwatchers and environmentalists reason to hope for the species' future. If the chick grows up, they say, Revere Beach could continue to be a breeding ground.

On the morning of Aug. 19, Susannah Corona, a scientist from the New England Aquarium who has organized about 10 volunteers to rotate guard duty, perched on the sea wall and peered through binoculars at the birds feeding near the edge of the water. Only with powerful magnification could she spot the piping plovers, scurrying and stopping as they pecked at water insects.

"If you take your eye off them," she said, "they just vanish."

For years, Massachusetts has tried to protect piping plover breeding ground by blocking off stretches of shoreline with twine and snow fencing, frustrating beachgoers. Today, the highest number of piping plovers is living on Massachusetts shoreline since the species was declared threatened in 1985.

"They're on the road to recovery," said Ian A. Bowles, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The chick in Revere, he added, is "a validation of more than two decades of effort by the Commonwealth."

The problem is, adult piping plovers are raising fewer chicks. In 1992, each pair of plovers tallied in Massachusetts fledged two chicks. Today, one plover generally survives of the four eggs the mother usually lays.

Two chicks hatched from the nest on Revere Beach. But one has gone missing.

"Maybe he tried to fly and got over the wall and into the street," Corona worried. "Maybe he was chased by a dog. Maybe he was chased by a dog and got over the wall. Maybe he ran over to Point of Pines and got eaten by a skunk. Maybe he starved . . .." She trailed off.

Birders blame the 1-in-4 survival rate on the proliferation of such predators as foxes, skunks, and seagulls. With the increasing number of piping plovers, perhaps predators are becoming more adept at catching them, said Scott Melvin, senior zoologist with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The birds' natural defenses may also work against them on beaches frequented by humans: The eggs, speckled like sand, are hard for beachgoers to spot, and the chicks freeze when startled, which makes them vulnerable to oncoming vehicles.

"They're still teetering on that brink," said Lee Elliott, a biologist with The Nature Conservancy of Texas who helps protect piping plover wintering spots.

The risks are even greater on Revere Beach, where more than 2.5 million visitors flock each year. Corona said most beachgoers have actively supported the area's new residents.

Despite the precautions, one of the parents, most likely the mother, has not been seen since earlier this month.

The parents must have circled above the beach in March or April, said Rebecca Harris, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's coastal waterbird program.

"When the plovers are arriving, it looks like a great spot," Harris said. "And then comes the sandcastle competition."

In early July, from their nest, a little depression in the sand, the robin-sized adults squawked at passersby, Corona said. Piping plovers are known for their staccato chirp, which they sometimes prolong to a flutelike trill.

Corona's volunteers cordoned off a 500-yard stretch with sticks, twine, and yellow caution tape. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation ordered its sand-raker to stop cleaning the area.

Seaweed washed up on the beach, bringing the tiny insects chicks feast upon. Fledglings need the energy to grow the wing feathers they require to fly 800 miles or more, to a wintering spot in North Carolina or as far as the coast of Mexico.

Letting her binoculars hang from a strap around her neck, Corona slowly walked toward the piping plovers. The parent hopped closer and gave Corona what she called "the eye."

"They're not little meek, mild birds," Corona said. "I think that's why people in Revere like them."

April Yee can be reached at ayee@globe.com.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Gather to End the War This Tuesday



PEACE ACTION, Move On, and other groups are sponsoring events across America (617 so far, and counting)this Tuesday evening, August 28, to call the attention of our congresspeople to the reality that we want the war to end, and we want it to end now. With reports that the White House itself is writing the Petraeus Report (no surprise there) and is at this point simply pathological, we must continue the pressure on Congress to do what we directed them to do when we put them into power last November-- END THIS INSANITY.

We have killed, according to some reports, upwards of 1,000,000 Iraqi citizens, lost close to 4000 US Troops, and maimed countless others for life, both physically and mentally. How can anyone attempt to argue that more of this is good? How can anyone accept anyone arguing that this is good, as anything other than insane? And yet the talking points go on. Men in suits (far removed from the battlefield, as are their families and friends and associates) gather on talk shows and point out this, or that, as if they were discussing a chess game. War is no game. The people who have experienced it first hand know this, which is why it is so dangerous to have war-mongers in power who, when their own times came to serve their country, found it inconvenient to do so. That would be Bush, Cheney, Rove, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Rumsfeld, Wolfevitz, Krsital, Perle, Feith, Lieberman, et al. War criminals all.

We are up to our necks now in blood and dishonor and bankruptcy-- both moral and financial. We must stand up and shout from the rooftops, no, it is NOT alright to kill people for corporate profit. The evil we have let loose on the world will be haunting us for years-- think of the bad karma we've created, and how far we will have to go to even things out again. Even as I write this, more are dying, more are being maimed, more are being permanently disabled by the remembrance of what our country has asked them to do. In the words of the late, great William Sloane Coffin (and where are his like today?)“The war against Iraq is as disastrous as it is unnecessary; perhaps in terms of its wisdom, purpose and motives, the worst war in American history…. Our military men and women…were not called to defend America but rather to attack Iraq. They were not called to die for, but rather to kill for, their country. What more unpatriotic thing could we have asked of our sons and daughters…?”

Indeed.

To find an event near you, visit here: http://pol.moveon.org/event/events/index.html?rc=peaceaction&action_id=92
and let your feelings be known.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Man Who Planted Trees


DO PEOPLE KNOW THIS? It's one of my favorite stories, a comfort story if you will, as warming as fresh-baked bread and my mother's homemade macoroni and cheese. I've been doing lots of research on trees lately-- by which I mean sitting under them-- and so of course this old tale comes to mind. Enjoy! Oh, the tree above is a beautiful grey birch on the northern slope of Spot Pond, Stoneham, Massachusetts.


JEAN GIONO

The Man Who Planted Trees


Translation from french by Peter Doyle

In order for the character of a human being to reveal truly exceptional qualities, we must have the good fortune to observe its action over a long period of years. If this action is devoid of all selfishness, if the idea that directs it is one of unqualified generosity, if it is absolutely certain that it has not sought recompense anywhere, and if moreover it has left visible marks on the world, then we are unquestionably dealing with an unforgettable character.

About forty years ago I went on a long hike, through hills absolutely unknown to tourists, in that very old region where the Alps penetrate into Provence.
This region is bounded to the south-east and south by the middle course of the Durance, between Sisteron and Mirabeau; to the north by the upper course of the Drôme, from its source down to Die; to the west by the plains of Comtat Venaissin and the outskirts of Mont Ventoux. It includes all the northern part of the Département of Basses-Alpes, the south of Drôme and a little enclave of Vaucluse.
At the time I undertook my long walk through this deserted region, it consisted of barren and monotonous lands, at about 1200 to 1300 meters above sea level. Nothing grew there except wild lavender.
I was crossing this country at its widest part, and after walking for three days, I found myself in the most complete desolation. I was camped next to the skeleton of an abandoned village. I had used the last of my water the day before and I needed to find more. Even though they were in ruins, these houses all huddled together and looking like an old wasps' nest made me think that there must at one time have been a spring or a well there. There was indeed a spring, but it was dry. The five or six roofless houses, ravaged by sun and wind, and the small chapel with its tumble-down belfry, were arrayed like the houses and chapels of living villages, but all life had disappeared.

It was a beautiful June day with plenty of sun, but on these shelterless lands, high up in the sky, the wind whistled with an unendurable brutality. Its growling in the carcasses of the houses was like that of a wild beast disturbed during its meal.
I had to move my camp. After five hours of walking, I still hadn't found water, and nothing gave me hope of finding any. Everywhere there was the same dryness, the same stiff, woody plants. I thought I saw in the distance a small black silhouette. On a chance I headed towards it. It was a shepherd. Thirty lambs or so were resting near him on the scorching ground.
He gave me a drink from his gourd and a little later he led me to his shepherd's cottage, tucked down in an undulation of the plateau. He drew his water - excellent - from a natural hole, very deep, above which he had installed a rudimentary windlass.

This man spoke little. This is common among those who live alone, but he seemed sure of himself, and confident in this assurance, which seemed remarkable in this land shorn of everything. He lived not in a cabin but in a real house of stone, from the looks of which it was clear that his own labor had restored the ruins he had found on his arrival. His roof was solid and water-tight. The wind struck against the roof tiles with the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.
His household was in order, his dishes washed, his floor swept, his rifle greased; his soup boiled over the fire; I noticed then that he was also freshly shaven, that all his buttons were solidly sewn, and that his clothes were mended with such care as to make the patches invisible.
He shared his soup with me, and when afterwards I offered him my tobacco pouch, he told me that he didn't smoke. His dog, as silent as he, was friendly without being fawning.

It had been agreed immediately that I would pass the night there, the closest village being still more than a day and a half farther on. Furthermore, I understood perfectly well the character of the rare villages of that region. There are four or five of them dispersed far from one another on the flanks of the hills, in groves of white oaks at the very ends of roads passable by carriage. They are inhabited by woodcutters who make charcoal. They are places where the living is poor. The families, pressed together in close quarters by a climate that is exceedingly harsh, in summer as well as in winter, struggle ever more selfishly against each other. Irrational contention grows beyond all bounds, fueled by a continuous struggle to escape from that place. The men carry their charcoal to the cities in their trucks, and then return. The most solid qualities crack under this perpetual Scottish shower. The women stir up bitterness. There is competition over everything, from the sale of charcoal to the benches at church. The virtues fight amongst themselves, the vices fight amongst themselves, and there is a ceaseless general combat between the vices and the virtues. On top of all that, the equally ceaseless wind irritates the nerves. There are epidemics of suicides and numerous cases of insanity, almost always murderous.

The shepherd, who did not smoke, took out a bag and poured a pile of acorns out onto the table. He began to examine them one after another with a great deal of attention, separating the good ones from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I offered to help him, but he told me it was his own business. Indeed, seeing the care that he devoted to this job, I did not insist. This was our whole conversation. When he had in the good pile a fair number of acorns, he counted them out into packets of ten. In doing this he eliminated some more of the acorns, discarding the smaller ones and those that that showed even the slightest crack, for he examined them very closely. When he had before him one hundred perfect acorns he stopped, and we went to bed.
The company of this man brought me a feeling of peace. I asked him the next morning if I might stay and rest the whole day with him. He found that perfectly natural. Or more exactly, he gave me the impression that nothing could disturb him. This rest was not absolutely necessary to me, but I was intrigued and I wanted to find out more about this man. He let out his flock and took them to the pasture. Before leaving, he soaked in a bucket of water the little sack containing the acorns that he had so carefully chosen and counted.

I noted that he carried as a sort of walking stick an iron rod as thick as his thumb and about one and a half meters long. I set off like someone out for a stroll, following a route parallel to his. His sheep pasture lay at the bottom of a small valley. He left his flock in the charge of his dog and climbed up towards the spot where I was standing. I was afraid that he was coming to reproach me for my indiscretion, but not at all : It was his own route and he invited me to come along with him if I had nothing better to do. He continued on another two hundred meters up the hill.
Having arrived at the place he had been heading for, he begin to pound his iron rod into the ground. This made a hole in which he placed an acorn, whereupon he covered over the hole again. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose land it was? He did not know. He supposed that it was communal land, or perhaps it belonged to someone who did not care about it. He himself did not care to know who the owners were. In this way he planted his one hundred acorns with great care.

After the noon meal, he began once more to pick over his acorns. I must have put enough insistence into my questions, because he answered them. For three years now he had been planting trees in this solitary way. He had planted one hundred thousand. Of these one hundred thousand, twenty thousand had come up. He counted on losing another half of them to rodents and to everything else that is unpredictable in the designs of Providence. That left ten thousand oaks that would grow in this place where before there was nothing.
It was at this moment that I began to wonder about his age. He was clearly more than fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had owned a farm in the plains, where he lived most of his life. He had lost his only son, and then his wife. He had retired into this solitude, where he took pleasure in living slowly, with his flock of sheep and his dog. He had concluded that this country was dying for lack of trees. He added that, having nothing more important to do, he had resolved to remedy the situation.
Leading as I did at the time a solitary life, despite my youth, I knew how to treat the souls of solitary people with delicacy. Still, I made a mistake. It was precisely my youth that forced me to imagine the future in my own terms, including a certain search for happiness. I told him that in thirty years these ten thousand trees would be magnificent. He replied very simply that, if God gave him life, in thirty years he would have planted so many other trees that these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the ocean.
He had also begun to study the propagation of beeches. and he had near his house a nursery filled with seedlings grown from beechnuts. His little wards, which he had protected from his sheep by a screen fence, were growing beautifully. He was also considering birches for the valley bottoms where, he told me, moisture lay slumbering just a few meters beneath the surface of the soil.
We parted the next day.

The next year the war of 14 came, in which I was engaged for five years. An infantryman could hardly think about trees. To tell the truth, the whole business hadn't made a very deep impression on me; I took it to be a hobby, like a stamp collection, and forgot about it.
With the war behind me, I found myself with a small demobilization bonus and a great desire to breathe a little pure air. Without any preconceived notion beyond that, I struck out again along the trail through that deserted country.
The land had not changed. Nonetheless, beyond that dead village I perceived in the distance a sort of gray fog that covered the hills like a carpet. Ever since the day before I had been thinking about the shepherd who planted trees. « Ten thousand oaks, I had said to myself, must really take up a lot of space. »
I had seen too many people die during those five years not to be able to imagine easily the death of Elzéard Bouffier, especially since when a man is twenty he thinks of a man of fifty as an old codger for whom nothing remains but to die. He was not dead. In fact, he was very spry. He had changed his job. He only had four sheep now, but to make up for this he had about a hundred beehives. He had gotten rid of the sheep because they threatened his crop of trees. He told me (as indeed I could see for myself) that the war had not disturbed him at all. He had continued imperturbably with his planting.
The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old and were taller than me and than him. The spectacle was impressive. I was literally speechless and, as he didn't speak himself, we passed the whole day in silence, walking through his forest. It was in three sections, eleven kilometers long overall and, at its widest point, three kilometers wide. When I considered that this had all sprung from the hands and from the soul of this one man - without technical aids - , it struck me that men could be as effective as God in domains other than destruction.
He had followed his idea, and the beeches that reached up to my shoulders and extending as far as the eye could see bore witness to it. The oaks were now good and thick, and had passed the age where they were at the mercy of rodents; as for the designs of Providence, to destroy the work that had been created would henceforth require a cyclone. He showed me admirable stands of birches that dated from five years ago, that is to say from 1915, when I had been fighting at Verdun. He had planted them in the valley bottoms where he had suspected, correctly, that there was water close to the surface. They were as tender as young girls, and very determined.
This creation had the air, moreover, of working by a chain reaction. He had not troubled about it; he went on obstinately with his simple task. But, in going back down to the village, I saw water running in streams that, within living memory, had always been dry. It was the most striking revival that he had shown me. These streams had borne water before, in ancient days. Certain of the sad villages that I spoke of at the beginning of my account had been built on the sites of ancient Gallo-Roman villages, of which there still remained traces; archeologists digging there had found fishhooks in places where in more recent times cisterns were required in order to have a little water.
The wind had also been at work, dispersing certain seeds. As the water reappeared, so too did willows, osiers, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain reason to live.
But the transformation had taken place so slowly that it had been taken for granted, without provoking surprise. The hunters who climbed the hills in search of hares or wild boars had noticed the spreading of the little trees, but they set it down to the natural spitefulness of the earth. That is why no one had touched the work of this man. If they had suspected him, they would have tried to thwart him. But he never came under suspicion : Who among the villagers or the administrators would ever have suspected that anyone could show such obstinacy in carrying out this magnificent act of generosity?

Beginning in 1920 I never let more than a year go by without paying a visit to Elzéard Bouffier. I never saw him waver or doubt, though God alone can tell when God's own hand is in a thing! I have said nothing of his disappointments, but you can easily imagine that, for such an accomplishment, it was necessary to conquer adversity; that, to assure the victory of such a passion, it was necessary to fight against despair. One year he had planted ten thousand maples. They all died. The next year,he gave up on maples and went back to beeches, which did even better than the oaks.
To get a true idea of this exceptional character, one must not forget that he worked in total solitude; so total that, toward the end of his life, he lost the habit of talking. Or maybe he just didn't see the need for it.

In 1933 he received the visit of an astonished forest ranger. This functionary ordered him to cease building fires outdoors, for fear of endangering this natural forest. It was the first time, this naive man told him, that a forest had been observed to grow up entirely on its own. At the time of this incident, he was thinking of planting beeches at a spot twelve kilometers from his house. To avoid the coming and going - because at the time he was seventy-five years old - he planned to build a cabin of stone out where he was doing his planting. This he did the next year.

In 1935, a veritable administrative delegation went to examine this « natural forest ». There was an important personage from Waters and Forests, a deputy, and some technicians. Many useless words were spoken. It was decided to do something, but luckily nothing was done, except for one truly useful thing : placing the forest under the protection of the State and forbidding anyone from coming there to make charcoal. For it was impossible not to be taken with the beauty of these young trees in full health. And the forest exercised its seductive powers even on the deputy himself.
I had a friend among the chief foresters who were with the delegation. I explained the mystery to him. One day the next week, we went off together to look for Elzéard Bouffier, We found him hard at work, twenty kilometers away from the place where the inspection had taken place.
This chief forester was not my friend for nothing. He understood the value of things. He knew how to remain silent. I offered up some eggs I had brought with me as a gift. We split our snack three ways, and then passed several hours in mute contemplation of the landscape.
The hillside whence we had come was covered with trees six or seven meters high. I remembered the look of the place in 1913 : a desert... The peaceful and steady labor, the vibrant highland air, his frugality, and above all, the serenity of his soul had given the old man a kind of solemn good health. He was an athlete of God. I asked myself how many hectares he had yet to cover with trees.
Before leaving, my friend made a simple suggestion concerning certain species of trees to which the terrain seemed to be particularly well suited. He was not insistent. « For the very good reason, » he told me afterwards, « that this fellow knows a lot more about this sort of thing than I do. » After another hour of walking, this thought having travelled along with him, he added : « He knows a lot more about this sort of thing than anybody - and he has found a jolly good way of being happy ! »
It was thanks to the efforts of this chief forester that the forest was protected, and with it, the happiness of this man. He designated three forest rangers for their protection, and terrorized them to such an extent that they remained indifferent to any jugs of wine that the woodcutters might offer as bribes.

The forest did not run any grave risks except during the war of 1939. Then automobiles were being run on wood alcohol, and there was never enough wood. They began to cut some of the stands of the oaks of 1910, but the trees stood so far from any useful road that the enterprise turned out to be bad from a financial point of view, and was soon abandoned. The shepherd never knew anything about it. He was thirty kilometers away, peacefully continuing his task, as untroubled by the war of 39 as he had been of the war of 14.

I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then eighty-seven years old. I had once more set off along my trail through the wilderness, only to find that now, in spite of the shambles in which the war had left the whole country, there was a motor coach running between the valley of the Durance and the mountain. I set down to this relatively rapid means of transportation the fact that I no longer recognized the landmarks I knew from my earlier visits. It also seemed that the route was taking me through entirely new places. I had to ask the name of a village to be sure that I was indeed passing through that same region, once so ruined and desolate. The coach set me down at Vergons. In 1913, this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had had three inhabitants. They were savages, hating each other, and earning their living by trapping : Physically and morally, they resembled prehistoric men . The nettles devoured the abandoned houses that surrounded them. Their lives were without hope, it was only a matter of waiting for death to come : a situation that hardly predisposes one to virtue.
All that had changed, even to the air itself. In place of the dry, brutal gusts that had greeted me long ago, a gentle breeze whispered to me, bearing sweet odors. A sound like that of running water came from the heights above : It was the sound of the wind in the trees. And most astonishing of all, I heard the sound of real water running into a pool. I saw that they had built a fountain, that it was full of water, and what touched me most, that next to it they had planted a lime-tree that must be at least four years old, already grown thick, an incontestable symbol of resurrection.

Furthermore, Vergons showed the signs of labors for which hope is a requirement : Hope must therefore have returned. They had cleared out the ruins, knocked down the broken walls, and rebuilt five houses. The hamlet now counted twenty-eight inhabitants, including four young families. The new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens that bore, mixed in with each other but still carefully laid out, vegetables and flowers, cabbages and rosebushes, leeks and gueules-de-loup, celery and anemones. It was now a place where anyone would be glad to live.
From there I continued on foot. The war from which we had just barely emerged had not permitted life to vanish completely, and now Lazarus was out of his tomb. On the lower flanks of the mountain, I saw small fields of barley and rye; in the bottoms of the narrow valleys, meadowlands were just turning green.
It has taken only the eight years that now separate us from that time for the whole country around there to blossom with splendor and ease. On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 there are now well-kept farms, the sign of a happy and comfortable life. The old springs, fed by rain and snow now that are now retained by the forests, have once again begun to flow. The brooks have been channelled. Beside each farm, amid groves of maples, the pools of fountains are bordered by carpets of fresh mint. Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. Yuppies have come from the plains, where land is expensive, bringing with them youth, movement, and a spirit of adventure. Walking along the roads you will meet men and women in full health, and boys and girls who know how to laugh, and who have regained the taste for the traditional rustic festivals. Counting both the previous inhabitants of the area, now unrecognizable from living in plenty, and the new arrivals, more than ten thousand persons owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.

When I consider that a single man, relying only on his own simple physical and moral resources, was able to transform a desert into this land of Canaan, I am convinced that despite everything, the human condition is truly admirable. But when I take into account the constancy, the greatness of soul, and the selfless dedication that was needed to bring about this transformation, I am filled with an immense respect for this old, uncultured peasant who knew how to bring about a work worthy of God.

Elzéard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.

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