Category Archives: Climate Change

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness.

The students arrived set to journey through wilderness, the classic romanticized remote landscape, and a wilderness of their mind, body and souls. Students often do not realize that they will travel through a type of land designated by law as Wilderness.

The Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964 designates lands that are separated from roads and motorized use. The act is the federal government’s strictest land preservation law. In 2014 the country celebrated the Act’s 50th Anniversary. The question remains open and often debated by private property activists, business, economists, environmentalists, and others: “Does wilderness still matter?”

Yes. Wilderness is more relevant and timely than ever. Wilderness preserves pockets of ancient ecosystems — from coasts, to endangered grassland prairies, to piedmonts and fragile alpine systems. They remain largely intact. Nearby human communities receive a boost in tourism, and recreational users travel to these wild places for respite. Lyndon B. Johnson said upon signing the bill into law:

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

In 1964, there were 54 Wilderness designations in 13 states totaling 9 million acres. The first Wilderness Area designations included the Gila in New Mexico. The original bill laid the foundation for many other Wilderness bills, some of which were passed into law.

Today there are more than 750 Wilderness Areas from coast to coast. These wild landscapes exist in this country because of the forethought and persistence of conservation leaders.

The Wilderness movement is one of the few times in history in which we as a society designated places set aside for what they are and set at a distance from the human species ability to dominate, take and destroy the very things that help us survive. Wilderness lands are dedicated to preserve havens for clean-water, carbon sequestration, fish and wildlife, and recreation.

Wilderness areas provide the headwaters habitat for clean water sources that reach many of our country’s largest cities: Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle and New York, to name a few. The roadless nature of these areas also makes them valuable fish and wildlife habitat. The law allows regions of our country’s landscape to remain inhabitable by large predators and serve as an example and testament of biodiversity and ecological processes. These wild places include home to grizzly bears, elk, and wolves, and watersheds where native salmon and trout maintain their genetic integrity.

Three-Fingered Jack in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area, Oregon

Three-Fingered Jack in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area, Oregon ©Levi Old

Wilderness draws humans in for many reasons. They arrive to separate from their everyday existences. To vision quest. To challenge comfort zones. To rejuvenate.

The students on these wilderness courses often look to escape the symptoms that follow hours spent in front of a screen, or those times when the hand drives itself to the cell phone on its own. Many seek to separate from the trauma of war or family troubles. For others the symptoms may arise in traffic jams, or walking on concrete so often that the body forgets the intricate features of wild, naked earth.

There are others who are content with the notion that wilderness solely exists:

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in,” said writer and Wilderness advocate, Wallace Stegner. “For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Wilderness is a victory in this country’s heritage and an Act and idea that deserves and needs to be defended. Even within the environmental movement itself, the debate continues as to whether these places exclude humans too much. There is a belief among many that we should intermingle in the environment and not feel as though we need to separate ourselves from it and that the concept of Wilderness separates humans further from nature.

Mending Old and New Practices

The leap into the 21st Century passed. The country is in a continuous war for resources. Our earth’s population is over 7 billion and predicted to grow towards as many as 10 billion in 2050 (the elephant in the room). Today’s movement towards ecological peace or “the environmental movement” has deepened the longstanding discussion on the value of setting aside preserved lands. The environmental movement, once driven by large policy and conservation of public lands, now has a new, or at least more diverse presence.

Giant Mountain Wilderness, New York ©Levi Old

Giant Mountain Wilderness, New York ©Levi Old

The neo-environmentalists have treaded bravely into new territories. More young farmers stake claims each year to grow local food, tend soils, and use sustainable agriculture. Urban planners are improving public transportation to offset carbon use and cut down on pollution. River restoration groups remove dams so that salmon can once again swim to their native birth grounds and reestablish themselves as staples of cultural tradition and food sovereignty (a role they held for thousands of years).

Universities and Walmarts employ sustainability coordinators who wash shades of green into their operations. Even permaculture, a regenerative way of living, commonly appears in the national press.

Each of these steps forward is part of a story’s thread — the story of a battle upstream for humanity and earth’s natural systems. They’re not separate, yet woven like an orb weaver’s web — like the web each student will navigate throughout life.

The modern environmental movement’s new approaches should make any longtime fighter in this work proud. However, it should not allow us to sit still or dismiss victories of the past and their value in the present. At the closing of the Act’s 50th year, we celebrated the role of Wilderness in our country’s past and future. In 2015 and beyond, however, our work must continue. The managed landscape cannot be mistaken for unmanaged country.

Looking at the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, Montana

Looking at the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, Montana    © Levi Old

One loss in the walls of Washington, and this Act could be stripped of its foundations, making wild lands exposed to numerous threats. Direct attacks on the law take place each year in our nation’s capitol.

One bill (H.R. 4089), for example, pushed by the extractive industries and disguised as pro-hunting legislation would have allowed motorized use and other development in protected Wilderness areas. It passed the U. S. House, but died in the Senate. These bills have the ability to destroy the hard work and value of these unmanaged landscapes.

We should not be fooled that Wilderness areas are completely devoid of human impact. Not only are humans visitors to Wilderness areas, the interconnectedness of ecological systems makes non-native species, climate change and air pollution among the many threats to these lands. These landscapes are delicately chosen because they are like no other areas — for their values to humans and ecological processes.

Named after the famous conservationist, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area in the Everglades National Park represents the woman who fought hard to protect this ecosystem of cypress marshes and mangrove forests. She secured a future for Miami’s water source and a haven for biodiversity. She stated at the beginning of her book, The River of Grass:

“There are no other Everglades in the world.”

Everglades National Park, home of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area

Everglades National Park — home of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area

Will we let these special places be exploited for short-term benefit, or will we fight to maintain and protect more? The younger generation and new breed of environmentalists can step up and lead the charge, mending new conservation techniques with foundations like the Wilderness Act.

Fracking and Fire

On the expedition’s final night we sat around telling stories, and Ben reflected on the gratitude he felt for the places set aside from our own species ability to fragment and destroy. He said he appreciated the lack of roads or drill rigs in the Wilderness areas we traveled throughout the course. He told a story about his home in eastern Wyoming, where drills checkered the landscape and trucks carried water to natural gas fracking operations.

The boom really changed the sagebrush steppe landscape where he grew up. He spoke about how the land’s value to human needs will outlast the natural gas extraction, and he hoped it would not ruin his hunting and fishing grounds, or his family’s water source.

Out here we know that there are wild landscapes protected by the Wilderness Act, which we learned about on course, he explained. “What forethought went into the protection of these places,” Ben said. “Those advocates were wise and planning for future generations. I would like to be one of those people.”

That night we sat in a cliff-side cave overlooking an arroyo. After weeks of challenging herself with primitive fire techniques, Lily started the fire we sat around. She also canoed, backpacked, wrestled with group leadership, communication, cooking, and a fear of heights — all under the guidance of Wilderness.

Each night Ben, Lily and our expedition crew stargazed far from city lights. As an educator, Wilderness provides me the finest of classrooms, a wild place that doubles as a wise mentor. That evening, I sensed we all knew that Wilderness can be harsh, often unforgiving, yet rewarding beyond the best author’s and the best speaker’s words.

As we went to bed, coyotes yipped into a light covering of cirrus clouds.

Rare pocket of thousand year-old, old growth Pacific Yew trees. Indian Creek, Frank - Church River of No Return Wilderness

Rare pocket of thousand year-old, old growth Pacific Yew trees. Indian Creek, Frank – Church River of No Return Wilderness ©Levi Old

Douglas, M.S. (1947). The Everglades: River of Grass. New York, NY: Rinehart & Company.

Govtrack.us. (n.d.). H.R. 4089 (112th): Sportsman’s Heritage Act of 2012. Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4089

The Wilderness Society. (n.d.). General Format. Retrieved from http://wilderness.org/article/wilderness-act

 

It’s Getting Hot in Here

By Maddy Morgan

Most of us have probably seen the headlines: “2014 on Track to be Hottest Year on Record,” or “Climate deniers lost for words: 2014 set for hottest year on record.” Yikes! Is it true? If so, what does this mean for us?

The story behind the headlines is based partially on information on the month of August. NASA and NOAA have both confirmed data showing that this August was the warmest August on record. Although New England’s August was relatively mild, temperatures in Central Europe, northern Africa, parts of South America, and western North America exceeded the norm. Ocean temperatures were also warmer than usual.

All this added up to a record-setting August. One month may be no big deal, until you consider that this makes August the 354th consecutive month that is above the 20th century average. And the top 10 hottest complete years on record are 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2013. I’m beginning to see a trend.


If, like me, you hate hot weather and despair at the thought of these rising temperatures, take heart in the map above, which shows most of the United States falling below 20th century averages. If we get too hot we can always relocate to the midwest.

Freshwater Sharks

Snorkeling in frigid waters for a species at-risk

By Levi Old                                                               

Salvelinus confluentusOn a dead-still summer night, I army-crawl upstream.

“We have a large adult!” says Jen.

I rise to one knee and pull the fogged snorkel mask off my head. “A big one?” I mumble in a haze.

“Yeah, really big. Much larger than I’ve ever seen this far up the creek,” she replies, pointing to where it kicked its caudal fin gently against the downstream flow. “It’s right there beside you.”

I cinch the mask on my face, place the snorkel in my mouth, and dunk back into the frigid water:

Twenty-six inches of wildness.

Jen pops her head out of the water and says, “Isn’t that just a beautiful creature?”

She snorkels one side of the creek and I snorkel the other. An assistant in waders walks the creek, tallies our fish sightings and makes sure we do not go hypothermic.

Jen O’Reilly, a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, leads the recovery effort for the Odell Lake population of bull trout, a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act. The recovery team consists of US Forest Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited. In order to monitor recovery of bull trout, biologists conduct an annual juvenile count in Trapper Creek, the only known spawning location for this population.

Trapper Creek is a tributary to Odell Lake. In the shadow of Oregon’s Diamond Peak, the lake lies in a glacier-carved basin physically detached from the Deschutes River by a 5,500 year-old lava flow. The flow enclosed the lake, genetically isolating this population of bull trout.

At midnight this past July, ten of us in dry suits and thick neoprene hoodies shimmied up different reaches (Fig. 1) of Trapper Creek. Shallow in most places, the snorkel is more of a crawl and scramble than a leisurely swim upstream. Even in mid-summer Trapper Creek is icy cold.

We closely observed the nooks of each piece of in-stream wood and dove into pools where rapids converged and bubbles enveloped our sightlines. We held dive lights, counted each fish and estimated its size class. We kept our eyes peeled for the creek’s bull trout.

Bull Trout – A species at-risk from Levi Old on Vimeo.

Named for their broad heads, bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) serve as apex predators in aquatic systems of the West. Often called “Dolly Varden (S. malma),” they are in fact a separate species. Bull trout exist in less than half their historic range and prefer clean, cold waters. As a member of the char genus, they grow to be shark-like beasts in comparison to their trout relatives. Bull trout can measure up to 41 inches and weigh as much as 42 pounds.

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 9.34.32 PM
Figure 1: Trapper Creek runs north into Odell Lake. The three primary snorkeling reaches are labeled on the map (Richardson and Jacobs, 2).

The Trapper Creek bull trout population is known as the only adfluvial, non-reservoir population of bull trout in Oregon. During the 20th century, the building of railroads, construction of revetments, and removal of woody debris turned the creek into a large ditch of rushing water, unsuitable for spawning bull trout.

In 2003, this all changed. The recovery team restored the channel to increase spawning and rearing habitat by deconstructing revetments, placing woody debris and rebuilding a meandering channel. The annual snorkel count of juvenile bull trout increased from 26 in 1996 to 150 in 2005. Restoring, sustaining and monitoring native habitat is crucial to the survival of this iconic species.

If you find yourself on western waters, keep an eye out for these stream predators. Light spots of yellow, red and orange cover their dark bodies, and a white margin can be found on the leading edge of their ventral fins. And watch out, anglers: they will steal a hooked fish right off of your line.

Enjoy the video:

Bull Trout – A species at-risk from Levi Old on Vimeo.

Sources:
  • Montana Water Center. (2009). Trapper Creek. Retrieved on October 16, 2014, from http://wildfish.montana.edu/Cases/browse_details.asp?ProjectID=36.
  • Richardson, Shannon and Jacobs, Steve. (2010). Progress Reports. Retrieved on October 16, 2014, from http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ODFW/NativeFish/pdf_files/Odell_BT_Report_final.pdf.

A Few Good Reads: Early Winter Edition

by Liz Brownlee

The Solstice cometh, and visions of vacation days dance in our heads.  Field Naturalists are always ready for an adventure in the snow, but we also love a thick quilt, a fire, and a book.  Here are a few of our winter-time favorites:

“The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature” by David Suzuki

Power, passion, and concrete examples of how humans can live more responsibly in the world.

“People of the Deer” by Farley Mowat

Hear the tale of the Ihalmiut people of northern Canada: how they lived in the far north, how their story intertwined with caribou migrations, how an imposing culture wrote death into the final chapter of their story.

“The Moon is Always Female” Poems by Marge Percy 

Poems of all shapes and sizes, including an entire section focused on our friend the moon.

“Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival” by Bernd Heinrich

This book tops many of our reading lists for this December (full disclosure: it’s partially because we’re headed on a Winter Ecology course with Bernd in January!)  A must read for understanding our wintry friends.

“Woodsong” by Gary Paulsen

High adventure meets real life, all in the winter world.  It’s technically “young adult literature” but that hasn’t stopped us.

“Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert” by Terry Tempest Williams

Just in case you prefer warmer climes, listen to the real life stories of the desert west.  TTW takes you from wonder to land use policy and everywhere in between.

Subtle Wonders of the High Sierra

by Cathy Bell

After a night spent deeply burrowed into the warmth of my down sleeping bag, I wake to discover that my tent has abruptly transformed itself from a cozy refuge to a swelteringly confined space.  The sun has only just cleared the ridgeline of Cirque Peak, but its rays are strong here at 11,000 feet above sea level, and my little tent heats up like a greenhouse.

Changing from long underwear to field clothes, I clamber out of my tent to find a heavy frost riming the sedges along Siberian Pass Creek.  It is the morning of July 20th.  I don’t have a thermometer, but last night didn’t feel too cold.  I’d guess that the overnight low was in the high 20s.  I stretch and take my time over breakfast, giving the sun a little more time to warm the high country before I set out for my day’s fieldwork.

foxtail forest and Siberian Outpost, Sequoia National Park

Looking over Siberian Outpost.

I’ve set up camp at the edge of a foxtail forest, where widely-spaced pines yield to the treeless gravel flats of the fetchingly-named Siberian Outpost.  Around me, steep talus slopes rear skyward, hinting at the expansive alpine plateaus above.  I am spending my summer in the wilderness of Sequoia National Park, just ten miles south-southwest of Mt. Whitney in the southern Sierra Nevada.  At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48, but—though it soars a gasping 3,000 feet above treeline—the famed summit is just one of a dozen exceeding 14,000 feet in this region.  Spectacular alpine country abounds: I’ve heard that the Sierra Nevada feature more acres above treeline than any other mountain range in the conterminous 48 states.

The rocky, seemingly-barren high reaches are the reason that I find myself here, in some of the wildest country remaining in the United States.  Though the Sierra peaks seem lifeless from a distance, a closer look reveals a surprising diversity of hardy alpine plants growing amongst the boulders.  I love this hidden world.

tiny Ivesia grows in a rock crevice

Tiny Ivesia grows in a rock crevice.

At the same time, I fear what the future holds.  Research suggests that alpine vegetation is especially at risk from the rapid shifts in temperature and precipitation caused by anthropogenic climate change.  Unfortunately, there are big gaps in our understanding of how high-elevation vegetation will respond to a changing climate.  In fact, since alpine areas are such hard places to access, we don’t even know if their plant communities have already started showing the effects of a warming world.

To try to fill in some of those holes, my master’s project work involves searching for vegetation survey plots that were established some twenty-five years ago.  When I can find the plots, I re-survey them in an effort to compare the plant populations we see today to the ones that were documented in the 1980s, hoping to determine if alpine species are already showing a response to climate change.  So far, the project is going far better than I had dared to hope; I have found every single plot I’ve sought.  Today, I’m going after Plot 403.  I tried to visit it ten days ago, on July 10th, but it was still buried beneath two feet of snow.  I’m hoping I have better luck today.

Shouldering my frame pack with its twenty pounds of field gear, I hike upvalley for half an hour, then scramble up a bouldered slope to the top of a ridge.  As I walk, the rhythm of my footsteps and breath ease me into an almost meditative state.  I take in the dramatic views and reflect on how the wilderness of Sequoia National Park is beautiful but vulnerable.  Though we think of national parks as pristine, even our most highly-protected places are not insulated from human impacts.  The beautiful and diverse plant populations of the High Sierra could be pushed out by changing conditions or the arrival of other plant species, irrevocably altering the character of this unique and inspiring wilderness.  In order to preserve and protect this place for future generations to enjoy, we first have to determine if and how it is changing—and that is what my project is all about.

The ridge brings me west onto the rocky fellfields of the Boreal Plateau, where I start looking for the steel stake that marks the center of Plot 403.  An expansive snowfield still clings to the slope to my right, but it lies east of where the plot should be, and I think I’ll be able to find the plot marker.  I methodically work back and forth, trying to line up the mountains in the distance with rocks on the ground until they match the relocation photo on the clipboard I clutch in my left hand.

dead alpine plant with massive taproot

In life, this plant grew only about an inch above the surface of the ground, but its massive taproot kept it anchored among the rocks.

A brown tangle on the ground catches my eye.  Distracted for a moment from my search, I stop and kneel to peer at the crushed and matted-down plants that the rapidly receding snow has revealed.  Though seemingly dead, most will soon pull energy from their deep taproots and green up, life reasserting itself after the long winter.

Long winters define this world above treeline.   A plant trying to survive here must contend with a growing season of only about two months, howling winds, and an environment that—despite abundant snowfall—is startlingly short on liquid water during the summer, when growing plants require it.  It’s a tough place to make a living, but the alpine plants of the Sierra Nevada are well-adapted to their environment.  They have weathered gradual shifts in climate for a long time.  They are survivors, I know.  I just hope they are able to cope with the climate curveball we have thrown them.

Straightening up, I resume my search for Plot 403, and in just a few minutes I glimpse a flash of reflected sunlight off the center stake.  I take off my pack and get to work.