Archive for Chair Emeritus POV

SEARCHING FOR SUPERLATIVES

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

SCOTLAND REDISCOVERS A NATIVE SON

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

THOUGHTS ALONG THE ALTA TRAIL

How often, I wonder sometimes, do those of us who enjoy hiking Tulare County’s many mountain trails ever take a moment to consider how those trails came to be? Look into their histories and you will often find good tales.

 

Recently, as I do most years in June, I was making my way up Sequoia National Park’s Alta Trail to the twin destinations of Alta Meadow and Alta Peak. When I was younger I often enjoyed the trail to the 11,200-foot summit of Alta Peak as a long day hike, but now I prefer to take my time and break the hike with a night at quiet Alta Meadow with its stupendous views of the Great Western Divide.

 

Walking uphill with a forty-pound backpack gives one plenty of time to study the trail underfoot.   Looking down, I saw once again a well-built trail from long ago. In our rugged mountains such routes seldom just happen; instead, they must be constructed.

 

East of Panther Gap, along my favorite portion of the Alta Trail, the trail climbs eastward across steep slopes. Often, the route traverses slopes of forty-five degrees or more. Such country tests the mettle of trail builders. Constructing a trail that traverses such difficult terrain requires both careful planning and lots of sweat.

 

I have to admit that since I first walked this route back in the 1960s I have always been impressed by this piece of trail work. The route follows a steady grade, a bit of good design I always appreciate. Large boulders, many of them weighing hundreds of pounds, line the lower side of the trail. All were moved and placed by hand.

 

This handsome segment of trail continues east past Mehrten Meadow and finally ends about a quarter mile short of Alta Meadow, after which a much rougher trail leads down to the meadow and its campsites.

 

Curious, I looked into the history of this trail several years ago. I found the answer to its origins in the annual report of the acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park for the season of 1904. In that long-ago summer, a labor crew under the supervision of park ranger Walter Fry built a new trail from Panther Gap to just short of Alta Meadow.

 

One hundred and ten years later, Walter Fry’s carefully laid out trail still admirably serves its purpose. Because the route was so carefully designed, the trail requires only minimal maintenance.  The easy grade keeps erosion to a minimum. About all that it requires most years is the removal of tree trunks that have fallen during winter storms.

 

The uppermost part of the Alta Trail had a very different history. From the final junction where the branches separate that lead to Alta Meadow and Alta Peak, the route leading to the summit climbs steeply.  In about two miles this challenging trail ascends about two thousand vertical feet, which means that the grade averages about 19% over its entire length. Portions, as anyone who climbs the peak will know, are considerably steeper than that.

 

In the early days, backcountry travelers who sought to enjoy the view from the top of Alta Peak simply scrambled up the long slope that leads to the summit from the camping ground that I still enjoy at Alta Meadow.

 

Many asked for a better route that would allow horses to make the climb, and finally, in 1927, the Park Service constructed a trail to the summit. These days, horses are seldom seen on Alta Peak, but a dozen or more hikers make the climb most summer days.

 

I like these old trails and all that they represent.  What do we build these days that will serve its intended purpose for the next century or two? The main stem of the Alta Trail is already 110 years old, and I would not be surprised to see it functioning just as it does now a century or two hence.

 

The same is likely true of the “younger branch” of the trail that leads to the summit of Alta Peak. A mere eight-seven years old this summer, it continues to attract hikers from all over the world. On my recent climb I met Canadians and Germans as well as domestic hikers.

 

We taxpayers built these trails long ago.  The combined cost in early twentieth century money was probably only a few thousand dollars. A good public investment indeed!

 

© Wm. Tweed

VISITING NATIONAL PARKS IN SCOTLAND

We all have our own reasons for traveling, but for me the greatest pleasure that comes from wandering is learning how varied the world can be.  Even the best ideas, it seems, can be pursued in very different ways.

 

A recent bit of good fortune brought me an opportunity too good to pass up. I received an invitation to speak at a national park conference in Scotland.

 

For a person whose surname recalls a river in the southern part of Scotland – yes, there is a River Tweed — an invitation to return to that northern land and commune with other national park people was a special treat.  Adding significance was the detail that this year has been designated in Scotland as a national year of “homecoming” – a year for descendants of Scots immigrants to visit the land of their ancestors.

 

Another Scottish immigrant, of course, serves as the primary connection between the national parks we enjoy here in California and those of Scotland. We think of 19th century naturalist John Muir as a Californian, and he did live here for over forty years, but Muir began his life in the small Scottish village of Dunbar and did not immigrate to North American until he was eleven years old. To the end of his life, he spoke with a distinct Scottish burr.

 

Muir died one hundred years ago this coming December, and this has led many to think about his significance both here and in Scotland. So I found myself last month at the “John Muir Conference,” an event attended by some 250 people seeking to understand how the national park idea is evolving in Scotland and the rest of the world.

 

We met in the charming provincial city of Perth, and we didn’t need to go far to study Scotland’s idea of what a national park ought to be.

 

Scotland’s two formally designated national parks – Loch Lomond and The Trossachs, and Cairngorms — both fall within easy driving range of Perth. Each features prized Scottish landscapes and enormous natural beauty. The two parks differ, however,  from the American model in nearly every conceivable way.

 

We build our American national parks around the premise of public ownership. Parks like Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia contain only very small amounts of privately held land. More than 98% of each of these three American parks belongs to us all.

 

The Scots reverse this model. Essentially, nearly all the land within the two Scottish parks is privately owned, but with conditions that contravene most assumptions Americans hold about private land. All the land in the Scottish parks  – and in fact all the non-urbanized land in the entire realm of Scotland — is open to hikers!

 

Yes, you read that right. Scottish law basically does not recognize the concept of “no trespassing” closures, even on private land. Scots can wander anywhere they want and whenever they feel like doing so.

 

A second profound difference between Scottish national parks and those here is that the two parks are managed not by a central agency but rather by the boards that include appointees from government, subject matter experts, and elected local representatives.  All these interests must work together to protect the parks’ features.

 

And, of course, thousands of people live in these parks. Residents vary from sheep farmers to dukes with castles (I visited one such castle during my short stay).

 

So, is it really fair to call these Scottish reserves “national parks?”  After visiting them, and talking with their managers, I believe so.  Just as we have here in America, the Scots have identified landscapes and natural features that define who they are as a people.  

 

Our national parks preserve wild places – landscapes barely touched by modern man – while the Scottish parks preserve something else – humanized landscapes that celebrate Scotland’s long relationship with its land. People have occupied Scotland’s parklands for thousands of years, and it is those humanized, pastoral landscapes that the Scots want to preserve.

 

My visit to Scotland reminded me once again that the national park idea has many forms.  We do it one way here, but our way is not the only way. If national parks are, as many have said, “America’s Best Idea,” then the idea has grown far beyond its origins to meet the needs of many different cultures.  A nice thought indeed.

 

© Wm. Tweed

PUTTING OUR “RAINY SEASON” TO BED

Now that May is here, it’s time to admit that the winter  “rainy season” of 2013-2014 is essentially over. We all know it was dry, but it is worth a minute to take a closer look. Within the numbers one can find a few surprises.

 

Because we live in a Mediterranean climate where nearly all of our rainfall comes during the winter months, the California “weather year” runs from July through June.  This allows us to look at our winter as a unitary whole.

 

Back in January and February you no doubt read and heard a good deal about “record-breaking dryness” and “unprecedented drought.”  This did not turn out to be true. Instead, by the time it ended, the winter of 2013-2014 had become just the kind of extremely dry year we see infrequently but regularly in Central California.

 

Such years, as I have written before, form a predictable part of our climate.  The winter now ending, for example, looks very much like with the winters of 1976-1977 and 1958-1959. This past winter, the rain gauge at my home in Three River recorded a sum that fell closely between those two other very dry winters.

 

Looking further back in time, we find other similar years including 1923-1924 and 1933-1934.  The recent winter of 2012-2013 also falls into this category, which is problem for us since it means this year’s dryness compounds that of last year.

 

Another way to compare years is to look at overall river runoff from the Sierra. Because this water is so important to all of us here in Tulare County, runoff has been measured carefully for nearly a century.

 

The average annual total flow of the Kaweah River is roughly 290,000 acre-feet. The median estimate for this year’s flow is that the river will produce about 23% of that total. Interestingly, the winters of 1976-1977 and 1923-1924 also saw 23% flows — so much for our “unprecedented” winter.

 

None of this means, by the way, that we are not genuinely short of water.  We have built a society and an economy that rely upon at least an average supply of water, and everyone suffers when nature periodically puts us on a low-water diet.

 

The natural world does better under these conditions than the human one.  The native biological systems of Central California have been subjected to periodic severe drought for so long that they consist mostly of those organisms that have worked out strategies for survival in dry times.

 

These strategies allow species to survive even while individual plants and animals fall victim to hostile conditions.  I’ve lost some of the big manzanita bushes on the hills around my house, but not all of them are succumbing to the drought. When wetter times return, manzanita will still be with us as a species.

 

And speaking of wetter times, many of you by now will have read forecasts of a return to El Niño conditions this coming winter.  With luck, such a shift might bring us copious winter rainfall, but a bit of caution remains appropriate at this early stage.

 

El Niño patterns vary in strength, and only the strongest come with a high likelihood of intense precipitation in California.  Early indications in the tropical portions Pacific Ocean do indeed offer hope for a strong El Niño, but it’s too soon to be sure.

 

The winter of 1997-1998 witnessed a strong El Niño in California and very heavy rainfall. The month of February 1998, for example, produced more rainfall at my house than the entire winter of 2013-2014.

 

Some forecasters are suggesting that the upcoming winter of 2014-2015 may be similar in intensity to 1997-1998 so, just for fun, I took the total rainfall from that wet winter and added it to the totals for the past three winters. I divided the sum by four, and guess what I got?

 

The resulting figure is very close (within an inch) to long-term average precipitation here in Three Rivers.  What I am saying is that if I add together one moderately dry year, two extremely dry years and then add an El Niño, what I get is “average” — the figure our local weathermen like to call “normal.”

 

The lesson is important: “average” in Central California is built of prolonged periods of drought and occasional floods. That’s just the way it works.

 

© Wm. Tweed

LESSONS FROM ANOTHER CALIFORNIA

We Californians like to think of our environment as unique – a place like nowhere else. We certainly live that way. Taking lessons from elsewhere is seldom part of our game plan.

 

But, truth be told, there are other places that share much with the Golden State. Of these, nowhere else resembles California so closely as the central portion of Chile, a nation on the western coast of South America.

 

Much unites the two places that seem so far apart on the map. Both fall in the mid-thirties latitude range, meaning they have temperate climates, and both adjoin relatively cold oceans, a bit a geography that means they share Mediterranean climates with dry summers and relatively wet winters.  

 

Both have coastal mountains, an interior valley exceptionally well suited for irrigation agriculture, and then, farther inland, high mountains that collect snow and provide summer runoff. We have the Sierra Nevada; Chileans enjoy their visits to the Andes.

 

As one might expect, when the two places have similar geography and climate they will also share similar plant life. In our mountains, we have giant sequoias; Chileans visit their forests of alerce trees, which grow to be almost as large as our Big Trees. Along the coast and in the foothills of the Andes, Chilean also live near extensive tracts of brushland. We apply the name chaparral to such environments; Chileans talk of their “matarral” country.

 

Now the similarities become even closer. Chilean matarral, just like California chaparral, burns easily during the dry season. And Chilean cities, just like our California communities, have invaded the matarral brushlands. Additionally, Chile is now in the fifth year of a prolonged drought.

 

I think you can see where this is going. Right now, it’s early fall in the southern hemisphere, and just as California annually has big chaparral fires in October and November, so does Chile suffer the same sort of events in April and May.

 

In recent weeks, Central Chile has seen intense matarral fires that have burned into the city of Valparaiso, destroyed more than a thousand homes and killed at least a dozen persons.

 

Very much like Santa Barbara here in California, Valparaiso is a coastal city built up against steep chaparral (matarral) covered hills. And just like in Santa Barbara, dry fall winds sometimes blow down from the mountains toward the beaches and all the development there. Such winds push fires towards the ocean and the city neighborhoods that adjoin it.

 

All this has been huge news in Chile, but only a footnote here. The fires in Valparaiso earlier this month were the worst ever seen in that fire-prone seaside city, which is saying something. At the height of the conflagration, about 5,000 fire-fighters were deployed, a response equal to the peak response here to last summer’s  Rim Fire near Yosemite.

 

Among those who pay attention to the natural world, there’s an old saying that “nature always bats last.” When we human invade chaparral environments, it is with the knowledge that whatever we build there eventually will burn up.  This is not just a possibility; given enough time it is inevitable.

 

Here in California, we relearn this lesson, or at least we ought to relearn this lesson, each fall. Tragically, our Chilean neighbors have just been reminded of the same inevitable natural cycle. Mediterranean-climate brushlands want to burn toward the end of the dry season. Later this year, threatening footage of similar fires here will be filling our California TV screens.

 

And, before I close, there’s yet another similarity we ought to note. Like California, Chile is subject to periodic strong earthquakes. On April 1st, northern Chile experienced an 8.2 quake, a shake as strong as the one that so severely damaged northern California in 1906. Fortunately, this recent event occurred in a lightly populated desert region.  However, in August 1906, four months after the famous San Francisco temblor, a seismic event of similar power essentially leveled Valparaiso; several thousand people died.

 

Why do I bring all this up?  Recent events in Chile remind us of the inevitability of similar events in California.  Drought, fire, earthquakes – all are inevitable here as well. In response, we can either work together to be prepared or we can ignore the risk and wait for the inevitable. The choice, as always, is ours.

 

© Wm. Tweed

OUR EUCALYPTUS LANDSCAPES

We use the word “natural” frequently, but just what it means is often a cause for debate. Here’s a local example.

 

We all recognize eucalyptus trees.  In many places, including numerous locations in Tulare County, they dominate the California landscape.  Some eucalyptus species (notably blue gums) grow large, and trees six or eight feet in diameter and 150 feet high can be found.

 

In many places in California, including here, eucalypti reproduce without human help, and over time they can establish permanent groves and even forests. That leads us to a question:  Should we consider these trees to be “natural” in California?  

 

I’ve just outlined the argument that suggests a positive answer to this inquiry. Eucalypts (yet another name for this genus of trees) grow well in California, reproduce without human assistance, and are so common that they have come to define the appearance of many rural landscapes.

 

The argument against takes a different track. Eucalypti are not “natural” in California because they are not native plants. Instead, they are imports from across the Pacific Ocean. All the many forms of eucalypts that grow in California today are descendants of Australian plants brought here mostly in the late nineteenth century for industrial and horticultural purposes.

 

The importation of eucalyptus into California profoundly changed the appearance of the Golden State.  Many hoped that the large fast growing types, trees like the blue gum, would become a major source of lumber. Lands owners established eucalyptus forest plantations with the expectation that they would be able to harvest and sell their timber.

 

Most of these plantations ultimately disappointed their owners. Gum trees, it turned out, produced a twisted and crack-prone wood that did not saw well into construction timber or railroad ties.  But even while they failed as a source of lumber, the trees soon displayed other values.

 

Farmers found that water-thrifty eucalypti could be used to create effective windbreaks along the margins of fields.  Older readers will recall miles of such windbreaks defining the edges of fields in the Salinas Valley and around the extensive Southern California citrus groves that existed for a century east of Los Angeles in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

 

The trees also became popular ornamentals – huge defining garden elements around which a landscape could be organized. Many ranches planted the trees for shade, and hundreds of miles of California highways were planted in long rows of gum trees.

 

Today, eucalyptus trees, or at least the larger types, have fallen out of favor.  Over time we came to realize that these fast-growing trees were messy, sometimes dangerous, and highly fire-prone. Yet, the trees still grow happily almost anywhere you look in the lowland parts of Central California.

 

Locally, some of the best remnants of the California eucalyptus boom can be found around Goshen.  The KOA campground there on the west side of Highway 99 occupies the remnants of a eucalyptus plantation. The tract stands immediately adjacent to the old railroad junction at Goshen, where long ago the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads exchanged traffic. I have long wondered if the railroad companies planted this grove.

 

North of Goshen along Highway 99 one can see some of the last of the big eucalypti that once lined so many miles of old U.S. Highway 99.  The recent road widening there took out some of these trees, but the project purposely protected some of these stately reminders of what many California highways looked like in the first half of the twentieth century. 

 

Downtown Visalia long had its own historic eucalyptus tree.   Planted by David Douglass in 1860, the tree stood for 128 years before it finally came down in 1988.  Its site is still marked within what are now the grounds of the Visalia Convention Center.

 

So what are we to make of our eucalypts?  Unlike our valley oaks, these impressive trees cannot be called “native,” but does that make them “unnatural?”  Perhaps, like most of the rest of us, they can best be described as “naturalized” – organisms that have found themselves well adapted to California and established permanent residence.

 

Eucalyptus trees visually define our valley landscapes. They tell us that we are on familiar ground.  As long as we are here, they likely will be too.

 

© Wm. Tweed

TWO STORIES ABOUT WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT

Two recent news stories about wildlife management in the Sierra Nevada remind us of how deeply we humans affect what we like to think of as the “natural” world.  We are, it seems, involved in pretty much everything that goes on around us.

The first story comes out of UC Santa Cruz, where research fellow Jack Hopkins has recently published the results of a study that documents shifting patterns in black bear feeding habits in Yosemite. 

As anyone who spends time in the Sierra knows, American black bears happily seek out and consume food brought into the mountains for human use.  Some bears become highly dependent upon human foods, which are rich in calories and often all-too-easy to obtain.  

This dependence (almost an addiction) can result in extensive property damage in campgrounds, and “offending” bears often become aggressive and must be destroyed.  You’re all familiar with stories of raiding campground bears and the havoc they sometimes create.

For several decades, national park managers at Yosemite have worked diligently to turn this situation around. Similar work has occurred locally at Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The key, the managers realized, was that human behavior had to change. Only when campers and other visitors to the mountains realized that bears must be denied access to human food would the situation improve.

Out of this came the modern world of “bear-proof” garbage cans and food-storage lockers in campgrounds coupled with education and also with fines for people who ignored the rules and continued to allow bears to obtain human food.  

Campers have sometimes chafed against all this, but now we have proof that it has made matters better. According to the UC Santa Cruz study, the percentage of human food in bear diets in Yosemite has now dropped by almost two-thirds as compared to 1975-1985.

The result, of course, is that bears eating more natural diets interact less often with visitors, do less damage to human property, and – most importantly – live longer and more natural lives.

The second story – still developing actually – has to do with Sierra Bighorn sheep.

The Sierra Nevada contains many thousands of black bears but only a few hundred bighorn sheep. Sheep numbers were once much higher, but populations crashed in the late nineteenth century in response to the introduction into the mountains of domestic sheep and diseases they carried. As a result, wild sheep came very close to extinction.

Seeking to increase wild sheep numbers, wildlife managers in recent decades have worked to protect the handful of existing herds. At the same time they have done their best to encourage these herds to grow so that they could then capture “surplus” animals and release them in other places that had once supported sheep populations. This has now been done successfully several times, including in the Tioga Pass area along the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park.

Here in the southern Sierra, wild sheep occupy the rugged Sierra Crest region that marks the eastern boundary of Tulare County. Two small herds persist in the vicinities of Mt. Williamson and Mt. Langley. Now, we have a third herd.

Within the past several weeks, California Department of Fish and Game officials have cooperated with National Park Service staff to reintroduce bighorn sheep into the Big Arroyo region east of Mineral King. Brought in by helicopter, ten ewes (females) and four rams (males) now occupy the area. The fourteen sheep came from Wheeler Ridge northwest of Bishop and Sawmill Pass near Independence.

Those who know our local mountains will recognize that the Big Arroyo is in the wilderness heart of Sequoia National Park and about as far removed from civilization as one can get these days.  The hope, of course, is that in this remote region the sheep will reproduce and prosper. 

As I remarked at the beginning of today’s column, both of these stories serve to remind us of the inescapable role we humans play these days in most everything.  

We have profoundly affected bears by making human food available to them, a change that not only corrupted many wild bruins but also often led to their premature deaths. Now we know that we must discipline ourselves if we are to live successfully with these intelligent and highly adaptable animals.

As for wild sheep, we almost lost them altogether because we prized domestic sheep grazing above the needs of wildlife. We reduced sheep numbers so severely that without our help their very survival fell into doubt. Now, seeking to reverse this grim pattern, we are investing significant money in an attempt to return wild sheep to our local mountains

As is so often the case, we humans have the capacity for both good and evil. Today, at least when it comes to wildlife, it’s nice to be able to report two successes.

© Wm. Tweed

THE QUIET OF THE DESERT

Long-time readers of this column know that desert camping is always high on my list when spring arrives to California.  There is something about the spare simplicity of our arid lands that draws me back year after year.

One can enjoy the desert in many different ways, but for me nothing beats back-road camping.  I like to seek out a quiet jeep road, set up a simple camp, and settle in to enjoy the enormous sense of freedom I always receive when I’m out in the great emptiness of the desert.

That said, it will come as no surprise that a recent weekend found my wife and me out in our old 4Runner looking for privacy and quiet.  That is not exactly what we found, however, and therein lies a story.

My favorite area for desert back-road camping is Death Valley National Park. The park has an extensive system of jeep roads, and many remote areas are open to roadside camping.  We have visited Death Valley repeatedly for these reasons, and this time we set our sights on the Marble Canyon area in the Cottonwood Mountains.

As desert jeep roads go, Marble Canyon is not all that hard to get to. At least as far as the mouth of the canyon, the dirt road present only minimal obstacles. Most drivers who know their vehicles will have little trouble getting there.

For that reason we did not expect to find the area completely deserted.  And when we arrived at the mouth of the canyon — a gravel arroyo a quarter mile wide — we found a widely scattered cluster of cars and tents. This was more than we had hoped for, but it did make sense. Beyond this point, the road is much rougher, and we could hardly complain if others were seeking adventures similar to the one we had in mind.

Having a good, high-clearance desert-type 4×4, we continued up Marble Canyon looking for our own private piece of desert. What came next, however, surprised us.

Every few hundred yards we found another camp. Each of these simple camps, most no more than a sleeping bag and a shade tarp, held a single person. After passing several such sites, the pattern began to come into focus. We had driven into the heart of a solo desert retreat. Supported by the base camp at the mouth of the canyon, each of these individuals was spending time alone in the desert – just them and the quiet emptiness.

Over, the years I have encountered similar programs in a variety of settings.  The idea is that we are so distracted by the endless hubbubs of daily life that we can only find ourselves by escaping to someplace solitary and quiet. Most formal religions endorse such thinking and many encourage meditation or solitary retreats. Wilderness has long provided settings for such endeavors.  

We spent several days in the Marble Canyon area and eventually had a chance to talk briefly to several of the solitary campers.  They confirmed that they were part of a structured experience that included four nights of solitary fasting in the desert. Later, when we got home, we looked up their group on the web and learned more.

I’ll respect the privacy of those involved and leave out the name of the sponsoring organization, but suffice it to say the wisdom these folks were seeking has deep roots in human experience. Even Old Testament prophets would understand.

Personally, I don’t seek out wild, empty places in search of fresh insights into who I am. For better or for worse, I figured that out a long time ago. What I do know, however, is that I have been drawn to these kinds of places for all my adult life. To me, they are familiar comfortable places – natural landscapes where I can be at peace with myself and the world.

We humans are a varied lot, and we react to nature in many ways. Some of us find God in wildness; others find themselves. For others, like me, wilderness simply is home.  If any of this is going to happen, of course, we need to make sure that quiet natural places continue to exist.

I often hear arguments that undeveloped places – wilderness and other wild lands – are “locked up” and closed to most of us.  The truth, as I was reminded in Marble Canyon, is exactly the opposite.

We need wild, quiet places so that we can be fully human.  The human need for them and the tradition of resorting to such places for wisdom and self-knowledge goes back thousands of years. It is also, as I rediscovered recently in Death Valley, still very much alive today.

© Wm. Tweed

LOOKING FOR LESSONS IN A DRY WINTER

We had some rain last weekend, but not enough to change the basic fact that our winter has been extremely dry. The first half of the “rainy season” has now passed with only minimal precipitation, and conditions are so dry that our county board of supervisors has declared a drought emergency in Tulare County. In coming months we will all need to adjust to making do with less water.

But what is going on in the natural world?  How are the native plants and animals of Tulare County faring?

Every event, whether we welcome it or not, has the power to teach us something. With this in mind, I’ve been watching nature this winter as all the living things that surround my Three Rivers home deal with the extremely arid conditions.

Here’s a little sampling of what I’ve discovered.

Birds are among the most mobile of living things and thus have the ability respond quickly to difficult conditions.  I’ve been watching my winter garden birds closely for more than a dozen years now, and the most distinctive change this year has been relatively rarity of many of the species that come to winter in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

I usually have a chattering flock of pine siskins at my bird feeders this time of the year, but I’ve not seen a single one this season.  Wherever these northern birds went this winter, it was not here.  Other often-common northern or high altitude migrants, species like hermit thrushes and red-breasted sapsuckers, have put in an appearance this winter but then departed for parts unknown. I’ve seen neither lately.

My migrant sparrows, on the other hand, seem unfazed by our dry winter.  The populations of wintering white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows seem plentiful. Both species summer in the far north, nesting into the arctic.

The native mammals that I live with, creatures like mule deer and bears, have fewer options and must deal with local conditions as they are. I suspect that the local deer are having a rough season. In mid-winter, their preferred feed is new growth on native shrubs, and this year there simply isn’t any. Hungry deer have been circling the high fences that protect my garden and looking in enviously.

I haven’t seen any black bears lately, but I am hearing reports that others have. Typically, bears would usually be sleeping this time of the year, but the prolonged warm and dry weather in January encouraged some to come out and look for food. I suspect we’ll see more of them soon.  Why sleep when there’s so little snow in the mountains?

Plants, of course, have no ability to move in dry years and must use other strategies to face difficult conditions.  The local manzanita bushes are having a rough time. Several old specimens have died recently in my neighborhood, and many of the rest look pretty bad, displaying only the faintest hint of green in their tough leaves. All this results from having so little moisture in the soil.

My local trees are doing some interesting things. The California buckeyes, a deciduous species, began leafing out even earlier than usual this year as have the blue oaks.  The oaks are at least a month earlier than average.  The risk to this strategy is that a late season snowstorm could hit these trees very hard; this very thing occurred in 2012 when a late, wet snow damaged or destroyed hundreds of leafed-out local oaks.

The moral of all this is that the natural world is adapting to this very dry year in long-practiced ways.  Most of what naturally lives here will survive this dry year. Individual numbers will go down, but species will endure.

I’ve heard a good deal of talk lately about this being an “unprecedented” drought – the worst in recorded history. That’s true as far as it goes, but you have to remember that recorded weather history in California really doesn’t go back very far – only into the second half of the nineteenth century.

When one seeks out instead the thousand-year precipitation record, something that can be laid out by studying tree rings in our local mountains, it turns out that this is nowhere near as dry as it can get in California.  Tree-ring science tells us that Central California had gone through intense dry spells that have gone on for decades or longer and that the past century has been uncommonly wet when compared to the longer record.

We tend to ignore this very compelling science and assume instead that the undeniable record of long-term droughts in times past simply doesn’t apply any more.  Such a strategy is, of course, a formula for disaster in the arena of human affairs.

Meanwhile the natural world around us muddles on, understanding that extreme aridity is just a part of Central California’s natural climate variability. We could learn something here, and we need to.

© Wm. Tweed