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 Well, it has finally rained!


At my residence in Three Rivers we received over two inches of precipitation last Friday night and early Saturday morning. Looking back through my weather log, we have not had that much rain within a twenty-four-hour period since January 2012.


The rain did wonders for my drought-stressed native-plant garden. By the following day I could already see the difference. Drought-withered plants were suddenly perking up. I could find green leaves where I had seen nothing but apparent wilt since June. Even my cactus garden looked happier.


Human morale picked up at the same time. My wife and I left a window open Friday night just to listen to the rain. The sound of water falling from the sky did wonders for us too.


This leads, of course, to the inevitable question: what does all this mean for the coming winter?  Will we see a shift in our winter weather toward wetter this year? Is our drought going to be washed away by powerful storms?


The answer is that no one has any real idea.


As you may have read, the National Weather Service issued its winter forecast for the nation several weeks ago. To quote the agency’s news release, NWS scientists are predicting that California will experience “at least a 2 in 3 chance that winter precipitation will be near or above normal….”


This sounds encouraging, but let me caution you. Here in California, over the long run, about 40% of our winters fall into the dry category, with the remaining 60% divided equally between average and wet.


What this means, if you do the simple math, is that over the past several decades we have had approximately a 60% chance each year of having either an average or  above-average winter. This, of course, is very close to the NWS forecast that we have a 66% chance of such an outcome this winter.


That said, allow me to throw a further complication into the mix. The logic of long-term weather forecasting is to study past conditions, find periods that are similar to now, and then expect the same thing to happen this time.


This logic makes a big assumption, however. For the same things to happen that happened in the past, then the climate must be the same, and that increasingly is simply not true.


California is significantly warmer now than in the recent past. To quote again from the National Weather Service: “2012 and 2013 rank in the top 10 of California’s warmest years on record, and 2014 is shaping up to be California’s warmest year” (ever).


And that leads us to the most important question of all: Does climate change make us more susceptible to drought? 


In  response, here’s a quote from a recently-published, peer-reviewed (that means serious science) article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society: Using the best scientific models available, the authors concluded “that the human emission of greenhouse gases has very likely TRIPLED (my emphasis) the likelihood of experiencing large-scale atmospheric conditions similar to those observed in 2013” (extreme drought in California).


Put another way, the best available science is telling us that we should expect more frequent droughts in coming years.


All this science confirms a warning about our weather that your stockbroker may have given you under a somewhat different context — that “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.”


So, in the end, no one really knows what will happen this year. With a warming climate, which has heated the Pacific Ocean adjacent to California notably this fall, and with a mild El Niño apparently still chugging along, all bets are off.


In the midst of all this confusion, I’m sticking to the long-term forecast I issue every year about this time – “dry until proven otherwise.” I’ll be very pleased if “otherwise” does assert itself in coming months, but caution remains the best position.


And if we plan for dry and find ourselves wrong, wouldn’t that be nice.


© Wm. Tweed






We humans can be divided up in many ways and among them is how we react to the different seasons.  Some lament the passing of warm weather while others relish change. I fall in the latter category.


Summer can feel endless here in Central California, and as the nights cool and the daytime heat finally fades, I monitor the changes with quiet enthusiasm. Truth be told, I like fall more than most.


Autumn does not generate that much affection among my friends. They admit to being glad that the heat of summer is over but otherwise see this season as a dull time of fading light and biological shutting down.


By now, we are all noticing how much less daylight each day brings us. A month has passed since we passed the moment when each twenty-four hours sees equal daylight and dark, and now darkness dominates the clock.


But there is more to this change than a mere reduction of sunlight hours. At the same time, the angle of the sun is shifting. Each day the sun moves across the sky a bit further to the south, and each day lengthens the autumn shadows on the land.


Living as I do in Three Rivers, surrounded by canyons and mountains, I mark this shift with pleasure. High summer here drenches the landscape in bright overhead light; fall light plays out entirely differently.


Anyone who takes landscape photographs knows the difference. An old rule of  outdoors photography suggests that most good photos are taken close to either dawn or dusk; that is when the light is “interesting.”  Handsome morning and evening shadows  – with all the beauty they bring – now last for hours on the hills I watch from my house.


Much of the biological world outside is shutting down as well. Most of the native plants that grace our foothills lands have long since drifted into near dormancy. The season of growth and fruiting ended months ago. Now, the trees and shrubs that clothe the Sierra,  and the animals that rely on them for sustenance,  simply abide –waiting for winter and the return of moisture.


Others lament this quiet fading of nature’s exuberance, but I find it soothing. Perhaps that feeling develops naturally out of a life spent in the semi-arid West. Every cycle needs a quiet period to make it complete.


Artists and musicians have long known this. Good images require both light and dark. Music must vary in pace and intensity. Beauty requires contrast.


So, if you will, we are now in the quiet part of nature’s annual song. The quiet conveys not sadness but rather resting and preparation for the coming drama of winter and spring. In classical music, a slow adagio movement usually precedes an exciting allegro. Such is also the way of nature.


And that’s why I’m enjoying the quiet beauty of autumn here in Tulare County. I trust that you are too.  Now, if only it would rain.


© Wm. Tweed


We humans like high places; mountains always fascinate us. As a result, we like to talk about mountains, and that leads inevitably to the urge to divide these special places into categories.  


In our local mountains we seem to have only one category. We call the mountains “fourteeners” that reach above an altitude of 14,000 feet. All the rest of our hundreds of high summits go unclassified.


Earlier this summer I ran into a more elaborate system. In the highlands of Scotland, the higher summits are divided by altitude into three categories. Each of these provides a list for those who want to seek out and climb the highest mountains in an area.


The mountains of Scotland are not nearly as high as our Sierra Nevada, with the highest being Ben Nevis at 4,409 feet. The Scottish mountains are very far north, however, and above 3,000 feet they are as barren and challenging as our own high country.


For this reason, the Scots tend to rank mountains more than 3,000 feet high in a special category. They have a name for them; they call them “Munros.” According to the 2012 list of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, Scotland contains 282 distinct peaks worthy of Munro status.


The name comes from Sir Hugh Munro, a founding member of that same mountaineering club.  In 1891, Munro published the first list of Scottish mountains that exceeded 3,000 feet in height. He came up with almost three hundred such summits.  


Munro’s list soon evolved into a challenge for Scottish mountaineers, who took to calling these peaks “Munros” in his honor. The first person to climb them all was the Reverend A. E. Robertson, who completed the challenge in 1901. Today, according to the mountaineering club, more than 5,000 people have climbed them all.


Soon, two additional categories of mountains appeared in Scotland.  Peaks rising between 2,500 and 3,000 came to be known as Corbetts, and those mountains between 2,000 and 2,500 feet took the title of Grahams. These names, too, celebrated Scottish mountaineers.


I bring all this up because I think it might be fun to consider something similar for the Sierra Nevada.  Our mountains are much higher, of course, and we would need to adjust the categories appropriately, but the idea of naming classes of mountains after early mountaineers does seem appropriate.


Let’s start with those peaks in the Sierra Nevada that rise above 14,000 feet. These, I propose, might nicely be called “Clydes.” The name comes from Norman Clyde, the Sierra’s all-time master of first ascents. Using this standard, the Sierra would have ten “Clydes.” (Half of these, incidentally, can be found along the eastern boundary of our own Tulare County.)


The next category would be summits between 13,000 and 14,000 feet. This list would be longer, running into the dozens of peaks. Following the Scottish logic, I would name these mountains “LeContes” after Joseph N. LeConte, a University of California professor who made the first recreational maps of the High Sierra in the 1890s and spent much of his life climbing Sierra peaks.


Our final category would include all those Sierra summits topping out between 12,000 and 13,000 feet. This list would include several hundred peaks, including many dozen locally. I would call these our “Solomons” commemorating Theodore Solomons, who was the first to identify the route that is now followed by the John Muir Trail and another early “peak-bagger.”


So, how likely is it that the peaks of the High Sierra are about to be categorized as Clydes, LeContes, and Solomons?   The answer, I am pretty sure, is that this is merely my personal fantasy.


But if Scotland can have “Munros, why can’t we have “Clydes?” Certainly, such a name would be more descriptive of our mountaineering heritage than merely calling them “fourteeners?”


© Wm. Tweed


Interesting questions come my way occasionally, and sometimes the answers surprise me. Here’s a recent example.


Back in August, I was asked if I could come up with evidence to “prove” the reliability of the story that is usually told about how the General Sherman Tree of Sequoia National Park obtained its name.  Proving anything historical is always a tricky business, but I promised to look into it.


The official story, which has been published in national park publications for many decades, is that the tree was named on August 7, 1879. On that day a cowboy and fur trapper named James Wolverton is reputed to have discovered the tree. The story goes on to state that since this was the biggest tree Wolverton had ever seen, and since he had served under Sherman during the Civil War, Wolverton named the tree after the general, whom he greatly respected.


So how does a historian “prove” that a story of this sort is true?  The answer is to seek out contemporary evidence that confirms the story but remain skeptical until such evidence is found. This is what I set out to do.


I have always been a little suspicious about the truthfulness of this story. First, the date is just too specific.  Why would a cowboy, camping rough for months at a time, remember the exact date on which he first encountered a particular tree?  It’s not impossible, but somehow it doesn’t feel right.


And, if the story is to be believed, why did Wolverton center his attention on this specific tree? Using only the naked eye, several nearby trees look just as large as the General Sherman, including the monarch sequoias now named Lincoln and President. Indeed, modern measurements show these three trees to be relatively close in overall size.


So, with more than a little skepticism, I went looking for evidence. Specifically, I sought a written document that could confirm early use of the General Sherman name. In this I struck out. I could not find a single mention of the “General Sherman Tree” in the decade following the tree’s supposed christening in 1879.


Congress created Sequoia National Park in 1890, and beginning in 1891, U. S. Army troops came each summer to the new park to protect the trees. As you might expect, these soldiers produced reports and other documents. Surely I would find the Sherman Tree mentioned there.


And, after a long search, I eventually did, but not as early as I expected. Not until 1897, in fact, did soldiers first write down the name “General Sherman Tree” in a report. That summer, they documented, they placed a sign on the tree with that name.


So, I then asked, could I find any other mention of this tree between 1879 and 1897? That proved easier. Beginning in 1884, a socialist Utopian group known as the Kaweah Colony explored the Giant Forest area with the goal of ultimately logging the area.  The colonists identified the very large tree and gave it a name – “Karl Marx.”


When the soldiers arrived in the spring of 1891 to protect the new national park, they expelled from the park those Kaweah colonists who were still present.  Did they also throw out the “Karl Marx” name?  And did those same soldiers also come up after 1890 with a new, military name for the tree? One has to wonder.


I pursued my research a bit farther, this time seeking the first reference I could find in print mentioning the James Wolverton connection. To my surprise, I could find nothing earlier than a park guide published in 1921 – a full forty-two years after the supposed event.


So where does all this leave us?  Nowhere very clear, I must admit.  There is, as best I can determine, no contemporary evidence to support the 1879 story and in fact the full story does not show up in print until over forty years later – a time lapse that at best makes one pause.


In the end, all I could tell the person who first got me started on this was that the official story that the tree was named in 1879 by James Wolverton cannot be proved and seems shaky. Beyond that, despite apparent plausibility, the alternative argument that the army named the tree is founded on nothing more than circumstantial evidence.


And there you have it. You can believe the official story, even if it is weak and un-provable, or you can draw your own conclusions from the circumstantial evidence. The choice is yours.


Sometimes, history just doesn’t provide the clear answers we seek.


© Wm. Tweed


It’s safe to say, I suspect, that the concept of wilderness is far from universally popular here in Tulare County.  In recent times, most of our elected officials have been opposed to the idea, and the political party that dominates our region has long made it clear that the whole idea is a complete mistake.  And all this, I fear, without most people even knowing exactly what wilderness is.


So let’s take a moment this week to review the wilderness idea and how it has come to be applied locally.  Our timing in this is appropriate, for next Wednesday, September 3rd, will mark the 50th anniversary of the approval of the federal law that started the modern designated wilderness movement.


The signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964, marked the end of a bi-partisan campaign that had gone on for more than a decade.  It’s hard to imagine now, but the idea of creating a national wilderness system made sense to a handful of legislators in both major parties, and they worked together to get the bill through congress.


The idea was simple: portions of our public lands should be left undeveloped forever, but with the proviso that they should remain open to traditional recreational use.  Areas designated as formal wilderness areas would have no roads and would be closed to motor vehicles of all sorts, but would remain open for hiking, camping, and horseback riding.  Areas that previously had been open to hunting and/or grazing would also continue to allow those uses.


Fifty years later, that’s pretty much the way it has worked out. Since 1964, piece by piece, congress has created a federal wilderness system that covers about 2.7 per cent of the contiguous forty-eight states.


Still speaking of the forty-eight states, California has more designated wilderness than any of the other contiguous states. Arizona comes in second. (And it shouldn’t surprise that Alaska – the last frontier — has more designated wilderness than all the rest of the country put together.)


Since 1964, most of the rugged backcountry of the High Sierra has been designated as wilderness. Local wilderness areas include, the Domeland Wilderness (created in 1964), the Golden Trout Wilderness (1978), the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness (1984), the Jenny Lakes Wilderness (1984), the Sierra South Wilderness (1984) and most recently the John Krebs Wilderness (2009). Adjoining Tulare County on the east side of the Sierra is the 600,000-acre John Muir Wilderness, also created in 1964.


Today, the wilderness areas of Tulare County are known to hikers and mountaineers worldwide, and tens of thousands use and enjoy them each summer.


All of this sounds innocent enough, so why do many local residents find the concept of wilderness so objectionable? Two reasons usually come up.


The first argument is that wilderness limits economic activity, even though over 97% of the land base of the 48 states remains outside the system. The other reason is that wilderness is exclusionary, denying use of the land to those who will not or cannot walk to enjoy it.


It will not surprise readers of this column that I don’t find either of these arguments particularly compelling. Are we really so desperate economically that we cannot afford to set aside less than 3% of the acreage contained within the forty-eight states for something other than commerce?  I doubt it, especially when you consider that most of the land involved is either desert or high mountain country. 


And is wilderness “exclusionary?” Well yes, in a certain way, it is.  Wilderness is closed to machines like 4×4 trucks, ATVs, motorized trail bikes, and even bicycles. But so are most churches, schools, city parks, and shopping centers, and we don’t seem to think that these are unreasonable closures.


At its heart, wilderness is a form of respect for the beautiful planet we inhabit. Wilderness allows us to enjoy nature on its terms rather than our own. It is, if you think this way, a recognition of God’s handiwork.


Personally, I’ll be toasting the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act this coming Wednesday. I hope that you’ll join me.


© Wm. Tweed


Today, this column reaches a milestone. Since I began writing for the Times-Delta in January 1997, I have now written and published in this newspaper five hundred columns about the natural world that surrounds us here in central California. Roughly speaking, that amounts to more than a third of a million words that I have shared with you, my readers.


For the first ten years, while I worked for the National Park Service, these columns focused mostly on Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Since that time, I’ve wandered more widely, writing about anything that caught my interest in the natural world.


Throughout these years, to its credit, the Times-Delta has given me free rein to go wherever I felt like going.  My responsibility here has been simply to find a story related to the natural world that is worth telling and to put it down in a way that makes it worth reading.


It is often said that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it. The same can be said of writing. These past seventeen years have taught me a great deal.


Much of this learning has been about the immediate subjects about which I have written. I always enjoy this kind of research. It is, in fact, one of the great pleasures of writing these columns.


But over time, I have learned many other things as well. Slowly, and with many a stumble, I have been able to assemble a broader and more complete view of the relationship here between the human and natural worlds.  The resulting picture is complicated, and like all things human, full of contradictions.


Over the past one hundred and fifty years, the human residents of Tulare County have both appreciated and abused the natural world in a wide variety of ways.


We have created world-class national parks yet also elected and re-elected local officials who have called for things like denuding the Sierra Nevada of all its trees. (Yes, one of our county supervisors proposed just that barely a decade ago!)


We have created a highly productive agricultural society, yet have structured it in a such a way that there simply will not be nearly enough water for our children to sustain it.


We have worked hard to preserve our individual freedoms, but all too often have used those same hard-gained rights to deplete our neighbor’s groundwater and pollute the air we all breathe together.


The truth is that as a collective populace, the residents of Tulare County still wrestle with the realities of the natural place we have chosen to call home.


The valley portion of our county has deep, rich soils, but we have nowhere near enough water to irrigate all our acreage sustainably. Right now, we’re depending primarily on ancient, Ice-Age water we’re mining from the ground at an alarming rate.


Geography makes our valley almost uniquely susceptible to air pollution. With mountains on three sides, big cities upwind, and a mild, usually sunny climate, one could not create a better place to concentrate pollution. Yet, we complain bitterly when we are told that this fact must be dealt with if we are not to poison ourselves and our children.


To the east of our valley lands, we have some of the grandest mountain country in the forty-eight states – the ultimate source of our water. Growing on these mountains are forests that contain the largest trees in the world. Yet, embedded in these mountains is a message we generally do our best to ignore – that our climate is highly variable year-to-year and prone to prolonged periods of aridity.


These are just some of the realities the natural world seeks to share with us. Yet, for many of us, “nature” is just what goes on up in the national parks and otherwise is of little consequence to our daily lives. In this, we could not be more wrong.


What have I learned while I’ve wrestled to write five hundred columns? That in the end, it is futile and ultimately self-defeating for a society to think of nature as a separate and unimportant part of creation.  The natural world and the human world are ultimately the same world. In these columns, my job is to seek out the details that allow us to see how the two fit together.


And for those of you who have made it this far – thanks for reading. In the end, it is you that make this all worth doing.  “See you” in two weeks.


© Wm. Tweed

Grant For Accessible Trails

Making the parks more accessible is one of the major goals of this grant, which will allow the parks to complete a universal access nature trail on the Kings Canyon valley floor, as well as plan for more universal trails in Grants Grove. Read More→

Thank You!

ZumwalkThankYou 2014


We often forget, I suspect, just how special our local landscapes can be. Now, a strong reminder is on the newsstands. 

This month’s Sunset Magazine features carefully selected “mountain escapes” in several of the major mountain ranges of the American West. Four areas receive special attention – the Cascades, Utah’s Wasatch, the San Juan Range of Colorado, and inevitably, California’s Sierra Nevada. 

For each of the four areas, the magazine offers a series of recommendations including such things as best lake, best peak, best campground, and so forth. 

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed all four of these areas, but of course as soon as I picked up the magazine I turned to the section on the Sierra Nevada. Call it the curiosity of a native son. 

Choosing the best of anything in the Sierra Nevada is not easy. The range is both large and rich in features.  Stretching more than four hundred miles from north to south, the Sierra is full of famous locations – places like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Valley.  That is what makes the magazine’s recommendations so interesting. 

I’m too lazy to calculate how many public campgrounds can be found within the Sierra. Certainly, if one starts at Lake Isabella in the south and continues up to the Lake Basin area just south of Lassen Peak, the number must easily go into the hundreds.  Think of how many you know – places like Cedar Grove and Florence Lake. 

So out of these hundreds of potential candidates, which campground does Sunset anoint as the “best” in the entire range?  The honor goes to cozy Cold Springs Campground in the Mineral King area of our own Sequoia National Park! 

I’ve known Cold Springs since I spent time there as a young national park ranger in the late 1970s.  What I discovered was a shady, intimate campground tucked in dense lodgepole and red fir forest along the banks of the East Fork of the Kaweah River.  Huge glacial boulders added privacy to several of the thirty campsites (nine of them walk-in only). Since then, very little has changed. 

As locals know, getting to Cold Springs is more than a bit of a challenge. The infamous road to Mineral King is passable in a passenger car but narrow and steep enough to turn around more than a few motorists. Experienced travelers allow ninety minutes to drive the twenty-four miles to Mineral King from the beginning of the Mineral King Road in Three Rivers. 

Is Cold Springs Campground for everyone?  Definitely not, but if you like your camping quiet, cool, and very far off the web, then Cold Springs is a truly wonderful place.  Personally, I think Sunset got it right. 

Back in the magazine, I continued down the list of the best in the Sierra only to discover another of my favorites. According to Sunset Magazine, the “best peak” in the entire Sierra Nevada is Alta Peak – the 11,200-foot mountain that defines the view from my home in Three Rivers. 

Readers of this column know Alta Peak well. I try to climb the peak each summer and have written about it several times, most recently in a column published just four weeks ago. 

Sunset correctly describes the t climb from the trailhead at Wolverton to the summit as “thigh-burning,” but also lets out the secret that the 360-degree panorama from the summit is as good as from the summit of Mt. Whitney. How can you beat that? 

What should we make of all this? Sunset Magazine knows the West. Since its founding in 1898, the magazine has focused on the landscapes and stories of the West. No other media outlet has watched the Sierra more closely or for so long. So, if Sunset Magazine has selected Cold Springs and Alta Peak as the best campground and best peak in the entire Sierra, we should value the magazine’s perspectives. 

And that brings us back to home.  How many Tulare County residents, do you suppose, have camped at Cold Springs or climbed Alta Peak?  Have you? 

© Wm. Tweed


Human fame is a fleeting and unpredictable phenomenon.  Persons famous in one time or place can often be unknown in other settings. Until recently, such has been the case elsewhere for one of California’s most famous historical residents.


For those who enjoy the natural world, no California name carries more weight than that of the famous naturalist John Muir.  More features bear his name, it has been calculated, than the name of any other historic resident of the Golden State.  We have John Muir schools and hospitals; trails, passes and peaks celebrate his memory; we have even named a freeway after him.


Cultural historians often identify Muir as a seminal figure in the development of modern America’s attitudes toward nature and wilderness. No other similar figure looms as large.


Muir lived more than half his life here in California, but he began his adventures far from the Golden State. Born in 1838, Muir came into this world in Scotland, and he spent the first eleven years of his life there. He would not arrive in California until he was thirty years old.


Muir’s Scottish birth makes it more than a little surprising that until recently this famous California resident was almost unknown there and, in fact, little known or appreciated throughout the British Isles. Now all that is changing.


As I discovered during my spring visit to Scotland to speak at a national park conference, Muir’s reputation there is undergoing a renaissance. The Scots, it appears, have finally noticed the international importance of their native son.


Scotland sent numerous boatloads of immigrants to North America during the middle years of the nineteenth century. These additions to the populations of Canada and the United States added much to both nations. Even in this often-august company, however, Muir stands out.


He is, it can be argued, one of the two most significant Scottish immigrants ever to be received by this country. Only the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie stands as large in our history, if for very different reasons.


Now, the Scots have begun to appreciate Muir and what he accomplished here. This renewed interest in Muir began when a small group hoping to protect key natural sites in Scotland formed the John Muir Trust in 1983.


Today, this group has grown to over 10,000 members, all committed to protecting nature in the Scottish part of the British Isles. Working much like the non-profit land trusts we have in this country, Scotland’s John Muir Trust both acquires land for public purposes and works with private landowners to perpetuate natural values.


California has the 212-mile-long John Muir Trail linking Yosemite with Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park. Now, Scotland has the 134-mile-long John Muir Way, which stretches from Muir’s birthplace at Dunbar on the North Sea westward to Helenburgh on the Irish Sea.  The trail’s full length was dedicated just three months ago in a ceremony presided over by Scotland’s first minister.


And just as we preserve John Muir’s California home at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez so, too, do the Scots preserve the house in which Muir was born.  Under the care of the John Muir Birthplace Trust, the old house in Dunbar where Muir came into the world is now a museum dedicated to the famous naturalist and his worldwide significance.


Muir’s rediscovery by the land of his birth reinforces the naturalist’s belief that the many elements that make up our world are all interconnected. As he wrote long ago in one of his most famous quotes: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”


Now, through the life of this nineteenth century immigrant, Scotland and California are “hitched” a bit closer together.


© Wm. Tweed