We are in the mountains this weekend, and biologist Lynn has just returned from some different mountains. I share with you now two of her dispatches.
June 16, 2012
I have just returned from a ten-day stint in the backcountry. I found plenty of woodpeckers, and every time I see one it gives me joy. The nights have been freezing and the days hot at the high-elevations of the dusty, dry eastern slope. My days out featured feasts of morels and wild onions on beds of wild greens, the discovery of ancient mortar stones and tiny arrowheads meant to pierce the hearts of birds, and dark-eyed juncos singing a new song that alters its trilling pitch in a way its brethren never do. I found caddis fly larva crawling through the rapidly drying meadow streams who had made their own shells from shining flakes of mica, pyrite, and obsidian and others who chose a more modest shelter of pine needles and tree bark instead. I have seen lodgepole pines bent into spirals by years of heavy snows, and I have shared awkward exchanges with bears as we looked at each other wondering who would stand their ground and who would walk around. Every morning I see the sun rise and feel its beautiful warmth as its light finally starts to flow into valleys.
As wild as I might like to believe the Sierras are, and as remote I might feel in the backcountry clambering off-trail over blackened, fallen trees, I can never really escape from human habitat. The evidence is everywhere in the contrails, in the deflated, abandoned balloons caught on in the branches of fir trees, and in the hoof prints of cattle molded into the meadow-mud. Deep down I know that every inch of this land has been surveyed, mapped, monitored, modeled, and managed. Even on those patches of ground where humans have never stepped, and surely there are some, our influence is written etched into landscape. There no unnavigable slopes in California. We decide if these places should even be a forest at all. I am grateful for all the thinkers, philosophers, biologists, foresters, and wanderers who realized the importance of these places, because I feel as John Muir did. “Going to the mountains is going home.” I don’t like that even the supposed ‘wilderness’ needs to be managed, but I will take those wild places for what they are. Management is not the same as taming.
For much of the natural spaces left to us, we have the Forest Service and the Park Service to thank. Between these two major institutions that oversee our natural environment, there exist two very different philosophies about how to best use and honor the land. Bureaucracy and corruption aside, these two institutions represent two different, sincere perspectives on how best to care for the natural places we still have. These two philosophies on where strike the balance between human needs and the needs of the environment create two noticeably different types of forests. As a person who crosses the imaginary line between park and forest on a continuous basis, I can attest that these imaginary boundaries are not invisible. I can literally see in the level disturbance, in the nature of the fires, in the density of the understory, and in the height of the canopy the legacy of the ideas that these institutions were founded on.
The Forests are where I work, and it is what I know the most about, so I will start with them. As a branch of the Department of Agriculture, the United State’s Forest Service’s goals are very resource-based. Its philosophy can be summed up in a single deceptively simple sentence that is written below “entering the ____ National Forest,” on every brown-and-yellow highway marker at the boundaries of USFS land. The National Forests proudly proclaim themselves to be the “land of many uses.” This axiom is a pretty accurate distillation of the views of Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the forest service.
Pinchot had no sentimental notions when it came to the land he defended; he simply recognized that we depended on our forests and that land needed to be regulated if it stood any chance of survival in the long term. He wanted the land to be used, but he wanted it to be used correctly, sustainably, and without waste. He fought to move forestland away from private control and into federal ownership, where it could be better controlled and better cared for, but he also worked to teach private landowners the lessons of sustainable use as well.
The ‘land of many uses’ idea has grown since the days of Gifford Pinchot in the late 1800’s. These uses now include recreation and conservation as well as resources, but much of the original sentiment still remains. Under this philosophy of sustainable use, the National Forests have given us both the national wilderness areas, some of the most pristine and undisturbed stretches of habitat in the country, as well as a lot of logging, grazing, and mining as well. The philosophy allows me to pick up a mushroom harvesting permit, a woodcutting permit, or a hunting permit at my local ranger station. It has created the swaths of hiking trails that I travel across every day, as well as the dirt bike and ATV trails that I avoid. It is Gifford Pinchot who championed the damming of the Hetch-hetchy Valley, the fabled second Yosemite.
I personally do not disdain logging, grazing and mining as some of you might (and should.) At least, my pragmatic self does not. I know eat those cows, I use the timber and minerals, and I savor the taste of Hetch-Hetchy water every time I visit San Francisco. A balance has to be stuck somewhere, and part of the philosophy of the forest service is to strive to make the removal of these resources as sustainable as possible. I sometimes feel that there are a few too many stumps left behind and the interest of ranchers sometimes takes precedence over the interest of meadows, but I will take an old logging road over a highway any day.
The National Park Service can be embodied by another character, one of my personal heroes and a contemporary, correspondent and rival of Gifford Pinchot’s, John Muir. Muir felt that the true value of the forests was something far less tangible than resources and recreation. He found the nature to be a source of solace, rejuvenation, and inspiration. The relationship Muir had with the wild was not practical, but spiritual. The value he saw in forest was a beauty that existed for it’s own sake. It is not that John Muir did not appreciate our need to use the resources the forest gives us, but his priorities were far different from those of Gifford Pinchot. In contrast to Pinchot, John Muir’s spent the last years of his life fighting to save Hetch-hetchy,
I suspect that for most people today living in an urban environment and away from the land, the Muir philosophy is, ironically, far more accessible. It’s a very strong and intuitive perspective. Especially after time spent stuck in modernity, the thing we want and need from the forest when we’re physically in it, is that solace and beauty. In a way, its popularity is where the philosophy of the National Park backfires. The National Parks duty is to the people who want to see and feel the beauty of a place like Yosemite National Park. The park’s duty is to make itself accessible to those of us who are looking for that spiritual moment in the shadow of Half Dome, but even inspiration and awe are not inexhaustible resources. The Valley is crowded, and at times feels more like an amusement park than something wild. It feels a bit as if the parks are preserved in the way a work of art is preserved, but maybe it’s better than stumps. I am not sure.
Still. Despite their flaws, I am thankful for what the National Forests and the National Parks have preserved. I cherish what I have of the Sierras to sojourn through. I can still get lost, and I can still find myself out there. I can’t wait to go out and look for more woodpeckers tomorrow.
Much of my information for this essay comes from Ranger Mia Monroe from the Muir Woods National Monument. She probably does not remember me, but I remember her, and I listened to every word she told me. She knows every last plant and animal within her park, and she has done everything in her power to protect their wellbeing and show their beauty to others. She lives the philosophy of John Muir and is one of the greatest guardians the park could have.
The rest of my information comes from The Life and Letters of John Muir by Steven Bade, which I recently read and the website forestservicehistory.org.
June 23, 2012
Long live the Paiute Cutthroat Trout
I have been considering trout lately because my job taken me to the Golden Trout Wilderness in the Sequoia National Forest, where a major and somewhat controversial fire was allowed to burn through much of the critical habitat of the endangered Little Kern Golden Trout last year. The Forest Service took a risk in allowing this forest fire to burn over much of this endemic subspecies’ critical habitat, since trout conservation is already exceedingly difficult considering the how readily different groups will interbreed if given the chance, the prevalence of introduced species, and the dynamic and changing nature of their habitat. Still, fires are a part of the ecology of California, and that includes ecology below water as well as above. It remains to be seen what the effects of this fire will prove to be, but I can attest to the fact that fish are still thriving in the creeks. The Golden Trout are far outnumbered by the more common Kern River Rainbow Trout, but they are there.
I feel I can justify writing about trout on a bird blog, because, as far as I am concerned, trout can easily compete with the plumage of any tropical tanager or territorial warbler and their behaviors are just fascinating. I would highly recommend any birdwatcher to try their hand at trout-watching if they ever get the chance, since binoculars are just as good for looking into clear streams as into the sky. Golden Trout are an especially beautiful and dramatic fish with bright crimson bellies, golden-yellow flanks, deep forest-green backs and dark blotches running down their sides. I have been spending a lot of time appreciating that beauty and pondering the particulars of existence in these narrow bands of habitat crosshatching the mountains of California during this past trip in the backcountry. I have also been reminiscing about my introduction to salmonids.
My trout fascination started six years ago while I was doing owl surveys in the Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest on the east side of the Sierras when I caught my first trout. It was entirely an accident, and I haven’t caught another since. The fish had gotten caught up in a scoop of stream water and nearly found itself poured from my cooking pot into the camp fire I was putting out. Although I never became a trout-fisherman, something about that fish intrigued me. The palm-sized cutthroat, strangely calm in my pot was beautiful mix of subtle pinks, reds, greens, and iridescence. It was still too small to display the slash of red that gives cutthroats their name.
When I lowered it back to the stream it disappeared instantly, in a flash of agility and flow, but that’s when I became aware of the multitude of others like it holding steady in the swift currents as their environment rushed around them. It’s not that I had never seen trout before, but this is perhaps the first time I ever really looked deeply. I spent the next several hours staring into that stream watching the trout as they hovered in the water, as they darted from pool-to-pool, and as they rose, silver sides flashing, to snap up an unlucky insect from the surface of the water.
I felt these fish we special in a poetic way, but it wasn’t until later that evening that I learned that the trout in my pot was special in an ecological way as well. I discovered the identity of my fish as a rainstorm started to overtake us. We decided to hide from the weather at an old cow camp a couple miles hike away from us. The first thing I saw as we ducked into the cabin, dripping with rain after our walk, were the words “long live the Paiute Cutthroat Trout,” carved into the doorframe. That was the name of my fish! The trout I saw were not rainbows placed there for the enjoyment of sportsmen, these were native trout that had evolved in pools of the Silver King Creek. Endemic to a handful of streams in this watershed, the fish I caught, the Paiute Cutthroat Trout is a federally protected subspecies of cutthroat trout and incredibly rare.
The cabin apparently had once been the staging ground of a restoration effort for this trout. Tanks of rotenone, a fish poison used for the wholesale eradication of the introduced species overtaking the cutthroats, still sat in the corner of the single room. Notebooks covered in mouse droppings recorded the daily activities of another biologist like myself who left the world for a couple of months for the sake of a species and the mountains. I don’t know if I agree with the rotenone strategy, but I guess their efforts were a success. I was glad I got to see the Paiute Cutthroat. Maybe the fish in my pot wasn’t genetically pure, hybridization with the introduced species remains a problem, but it was still a living testament of something that is visibly unique. I value the presence of a creature that only exists if you hike the right trail in the right part of the mountains and looking into the right stream.
Would the Humbolt-Toiyabe take the same risk that Sequoia National Forest took, I wonder? The personality of this trout is very different from that of the Golden Trout. Although the status of genetically pure Golden Trout remains tenuous within their native range, they have thrived as an introduced species in high-elevation lakes across the American west. They pose a challenge to anglers and are known as being a clever and aggressive fish, whereas Paiute Cutthroat seem unable to compete at all outside of the streams of the Silver King watershed. They are notoriously easy to catch and seem unable to defend themselves. Could they have pulled through the fire in the same way? When you’re working to preserve uniqueness, each case will be different.
Along with a stack of notebooks in a backcountry cabin and speaking with the regional biologist, Emilie Lang, at the Sequoia National Forest, I referred to these articles for information:
Allendorf, Fred W. and Robb F. Leary. “Conservation and Distribution of Genetic Variation in a Polytipic Species, the Cutthroat Trout.” Conservation Biology. Vol 2. No 2. June, 1998.
Schreck, Carl B, and Robert J. Behnke. “Trouts of the Upper Kern River Basin, California, with Reference to Systematics and Evolution of Western North American Salmo” Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. 1971.