Dennis James learned a few summers ago that the best way to get to know Rock County is to walk across it.
Today, you can find him hosting regular hikes on the county’s portion of the Ice Age Trail and enjoying every step.
James is coordinator of the Rock County Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, which consists of highly engaged volunteers who build and maintain the trail in the county.
In Janesville, the alliance partners with Janesville Parks, Janesville Trail Adaptors and the Rock Trail Coalition to keep trails looking good.
James also promotes hiking and volunteerism at events throughout the year.
He is a good example of someone who understands how walking stretches time and prolongs life, to paraphrase author Edward Abbey.
Now, James is honing skills that will help him further promote walking.
He has been awarded a competitive five-month training program known as a Walking College Fellowship.
The program is offered by America Walks, a 20-year-old national advocacy group working to empower communities to create safe, accessible and enjoyable places to walk and to move.
“The Walking College ... is aimed at helping to build grassroots advocacy networks across the country,” said Emilie Bahr, Walking College manager. “It targets the growing number of people who want to make a difference in their communities by making walking safer, more accessible and more appealing ...”
She called this year’s competition for the fellowships “extremely competitive and rich with unique professionals.”
“We chose Dennis based on the thought he put into his application, his obvious passion for creating more walkable environments, his experience to date and because we thought the Walking College would be valuable to him ...” Bahr said.
James is the first Walking College fellow from Wisconsin.
He will complete online training on:
“Janesville has excellent multi-use trails,” James said. “But it doesn’t address walkability in all parts of the city. The Ice Age Trail connects Janesville and Milton, but we are working to connect communities east and west of the city.”
He praises the Rock Trail Coalition, which has made “great strides” in connecting Janesville with Beloit with the creation of the Peace Trail.
He also said the city has received several grants in the past few years to create a downtown festival area along the riverfront.
“Once completed, the Ice Age Trail/multi-use trail will be along the Rock River for about 5 miles,” James said.
He wants to see additional urban walking and multi-use trails in all Rock County communities. He also wants to see more families hiking and walking in parks.
“How do we improve and expand existing trails and how do we make them more accessible to people with disabilities?” James asks.
During his fellowship, James will develop skills to help him coordinate nonmotorized groups in Rock County.
“What are other groups doing that fit with what we (members of the Ice Age Trail Alliance) are doing,” James asked. “We want to be fully engaged with each other. Our primary responsibility is to the walking community, which includes bikes.”
He also wants to develop a shared understanding of the problems and a joint approach to solving them.
Part of his fellowship includes putting together a walking-action plan for Rock County.
The plan will catalogue all the existing resources and trail planning in the county.
It also will include “a vision for improving walkability in our community” to improve health and well-being, James said.
He called time spent with the Walking College a way of giving back.
“It’s thinking ahead a couple of generations,” James said. “I may not see the improvement I advocate for, but someone may generations from now.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.
New Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes walked over to his standing desk and searched for a video on his work computer.
The split-screen video shows two similar rooms about to be set ablaze. The primary difference between the two is the furniture.
That might seem minor, but the variation in decor was about to prove Rhodes’ point about an ongoing crisis that is causing severe health consequences for firefighters.
The furniture in one room was built from natural materials—wood and cotton, for example. The other room featured modern furniture made of plastic and other synthetics.
A flame is visible in the traditional room first, but it remains contained to one end of a couch. The fire looks tame for the first several minutes; Rhodes described it as a “campfire.”
In the modern room, once the flame appears, the fire spreads aggressively. Thick black smoke fills the air. The entire room reaches flashover—the point at which most or all flammable materials ignite, causing the fire to leave its room of origin—in less than 4 minutes.
It takes nearly 30 minutes for the other room to reach flashover.
Not only does the fire in the modern room burn faster, it burns hotter. And the burning synthetic materials emit toxic fumes that, according to research, will increase the likelihood of firefighters getting cancer.
A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer compared to the general U.S. population.
The risk is significantly higher for certain types of cancer. For example, firefighters are twice as likely to get testicular cancer or mesothelioma, according to the study.
Rhodes said materials used in modern furniture and buildings are largely to blame. When synthetics burn, they can release chemicals such as formaldehyde and cyanide that have potentially lethal health effects.
Fire departments across the country already are struggling with recruitment. Signing up to run into burning buildings has always been a stressful, dangerous job.
An increased risk of cancer makes the effort to find the next generation of firefighters even harder.
“When I got into the job, you wanted to serve, and you knew that there was a risk,” Rhodes said. “Today’s firefighter really has to go, ‘Wow, I’m going to get absorption through the skin.’ … I think a young firefighter going into the field has to really look at that like, ‘There’s a good chance I’m going to get cancer, and there’s nothing I can do about it.’
“I’m worried. I’m very worried.”
Some might argue firefighters have an increased cancer risk regardless of what sort of materials might be in burning houses. They could get the disease naturally.
But numerous studies say materials found in synthetics release toxic gases into the air when they burn, said Rob Balsamo, Blackhawk Technical College’s coordinator of fire and EMS programs.
“Generally, if it was an organic material like hemp or cotton or wood or paper, the materials and gases that are in the smoke, we know what they are,” he said. “When we get into the synthetic materials, we have no idea what could be in there because everything starts to mix up. It’s just a conglomeration of stuff that’s in the smoke and the atmosphere when we go in.”
Rhodes said synthetic materials emit more heat when they burn, increasing an fire’s temperature.
That has health consequences, too. For every 5-degree increase in skin temperature, the body’s absorption rate rises by 400%, according to a meta-research paper compiled by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.
Balsamo said the federal government and some state legislatures have passed cancer presumption laws to provide treatment funding for firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
There are 33 states with cancer presumption laws, according to the First Responder Center for Excellence. In Wisconsin, the statute covers firefighters who served for at least 10 years and showed no evidence of cancer prior to employment.
The Wisconsin statute covers most types of cancers but does not apply to cancers caused by tobacco products if the firefighter uses such products.
Balsamo said Blackhawk Tech’s programs inform students about the risks of being a firefighter. These broad discussions encompass all dangers of the job, but they also focus on how different materials combust.
Sometimes students will drop out of the program. Maybe they can’t handle claustrophobia in fire simulations or they struggle to navigate a ladder.
Nobody has ever specifically told Balsamo they’re leaving because of the cancer risk. Most willingly accept the hazards, he said.
“If we worried about all the smoke and the cancer, that type of thing, and you were stuck in a fire, they would never go in to rescue you,” Balsamo said. “But that’s what they’re being paid for or volunteering to do is to come in and save your life. They know what that risk is, so they’re going to go do it.”
It’s impossible to eliminate all risks involved with firefighting. But departments can enact policies to minimize health complications down the road, Balsamo said.
Rhodes, who was named Janesville’s fire chief in February, said his colleagues understand the increased likelihood of getting cancer. He praised them for their enthusiasm and dedication to the job.
Still, the risk is real. Rhodes worked with several firefighters at his previous jobs in Missouri who got cancer. They were all diagnosed before it was too late.
He wants to ensure Janesville’s personnel can say the same thing if they’re diagnosed with cancer.
Rhodes said he read an article recently that said fires “are almost treated like a hazmat incident now.” So firefighters are taught to get out of gear, clean their skin with wipes, toss their gear in the laundry and shower as soon as they can after responding to a fire, he said.
Students at Blackhawk Tech also practice washing and decontaminating their gear, even though the program uses gas burners to simulate fire, Balsamo said.
Janesville and many other departments also encourage clean eating and regular exercise.
As with any other profession, a healthy lifestyle acts as a preventive measure against cancer and other diseases.
Because toxic gases and smoke can get trapped in a firefighter’s gear, Rhodes is exploring the idea of purchasing a second set of gear for every firefighter. If another call came in before their first set could be washed, they would still have something to wear, he said.
That effort wouldn’t be cheap. The department is estimating it would cost more than $330,000 to purchase extra gear for everyone, he said.
It’s possible the department could slowly acquire extra gear over the next few years.
Rhodes also would like the department to fund regular health screenings for its employees. Those checks helped identify cancers in his Missouri colleagues before they spread.
Balsamo believes the general public has little awareness of the issue. While publicizing the cancer risk could further hurt a barren recruiting landscape, more awareness could help departments get more funding to improve proactive measures, he said.
Rhodes feels the same way. When he gave a speech at a recent graduation of five fire recruits, he believed it was important to outline the risks.
“I felt it was my duty to inform them. I questioned myself to even talk about that at their graduation because graduations are positive and awesome, and you’re celebrating somebody’s career,” he said.
“I wanted them to be very aware of the impact, the potential impact, that cancer can have on their career.”
Richard M. Blakemore
Clifford L. Buol
Roberta “Bert” Fitzsimmons
Willard J. Geske
Keith E. Gibney
Stephen D. Howard
Altanette “Alta” J. Hunt
Gordon J. LaChance
Carol “Ginger” Mair
Carl “Jim” Wenz
Robert W. Wenzel
President Donald Trump pushed Mexico—and his own party—to the brink when he threatened massive new tariffs over illegal immigration. And he now has a cross-border deal to show for it.
He also added another chapter in his now-familiar pattern on tariffs: threaten to go big, pull back at the last minute.
Trump announced late Friday that he wouldn’t impose a sliding scale of tariffs on goods from Mexico—from 5% to 25% over time—after that nation agreed to take a tougher stance on immigration, which was his goal all along.
Mexico did commit to doing more—deploy National Guard troops to help curb illegal migration and agree to care for Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S. indefinitely as their cases wind through the system.
American negotiators had been asking Mexico for the past year since the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in July 2018 to do more to stop the flow of migrants. But it was only in the past week, under the threat of tariffs, that they felt Mexico had begun negotiating seriously, according to a U.S. official.
“Mexico successfully avoided the catastrophe of tariffs but will pay a heavy price,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “Potentially tens of thousands of refugee claimants will have to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed. Mexico will have to house, employ, educate and provide health care for them. This is a huge commitment” for the government.
Mexico has been gearing up to address the surge of migrants, with Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, saying Thursday the country was prepared to deploy about 6,000 guard troops. And the country already has been hosting asylum seekers while their cases were being processed.
The U.S. originally demanded that Central American migrants apply for asylum in Mexico instead of the U.S. But Mexico beat back that demand. Also, there was no formal language in the deal that Mexico would increase purchases of U.S. agricultural products, as Trump had promised on Twitter.
All of this could leave some of those most upset over Trump’s approach, including some Republicans, questioning whether the turmoil of the last week was really worth it.
The whole episode also had a familiar feel: Trump has repeatedly threatened Mexico over immigration only to back off. First, he said he’d immediately close the southern border over migration.
Then he abruptly pivoted in April to a new demand: that the Mexican government stop the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. within a year or face tariffs on automobiles.
Separately, Trump has threatened European and Japanese carmakers with tariffs in the name of national security but then said he’d delay any action by 180 days.
This is far from the first time the president has faced criticism over his stance on tariffs. What made this time different was just how alone Trump was in his position. The list of opponents to the idea was long: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, farm groups, automakers and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who took the rare step of saying publicly he disagreed with the president.
Even elsewhere in the Trump administration there was little vocal support for Trump’s Mexico tariffs. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin opposed them, a person familiar with the matter said. So did Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the New York Times reported.
Republicans, who have grown adept at talking about areas of disagreement with Trump without sounding like they disagree, didn’t hold back.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said last week after he was asked about the potential economic harm to his home state.
“I know he’s sometimes, in his frustration, expressed his intention to do certain things, but after calm reflection and consultation with the members of the Congress has decided maybe to pursue a different course,” Cornyn said then. “So that’s what I hope will happen here.”
The wishes of Cornyn—and many others—were granted.
Republicans quickly rallied around the president for securing the deal and suggested this could clear the way for Congress to approve the new trade deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, known as the USMCA.
“Trump has proven those who doubted him wrong by getting Mexico to step up their efforts to help us secure our southern border,” the No. 2 House Republican, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, said in a statement. “Tonight’s deal made by President Trump also puts us in a better position to make USMCA a reality.”
Yet other Republicans were more nuanced in their reaction. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said her constituents were “breathing a sigh of relief” and that Mexico “stepped up to help” address the humanitarian crisis. But her statement Friday night didn’t mention Trump.
The deal does alleviate a political challenge for McConnell, given that the 2020 electoral map is far less friendly for the GOP than for Democrats.
Trump’s approval ratings are underwater in a handful of states where Senate Republicans are running for re-election, including Ernst, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Susan Collins in Maine and Thom Tillis in North Carolina.
While Tillis, who faces a primary challenge, was an early backer of Trump’s tariff strategy despite previously calling himself a free trader, others including Cornyn, Ernst and Gardner have been outspoken critics of the president’s trade policy.
Trump had announced the tariff threat in response to a surge in illegal migration to the U.S. through Mexico this year. More than 144,000 people were apprehended after illegally crossing the southern border in May or were refused entry to the U.S. That’s the most in a single month in at least five years; the number has grown every month since January.