Oct 22, 2009

Climate Actions This Saturday, October 24th

You've probably heard about the global day of climate actions taking place this Saturday, October 24th. Organizers are pushing the 350 ppm theme. 350 refers to the amount of carbon dioxide we can afford to have in the atmosphere. We're around 390 and desperately need to reduce that level to 350 in a very short time period. We can absolutely do this, given there is political will. Ahead of December talks in Copenhagen, we need to push the powerful into accepting this reality.

As one who often feels discouraged by a lack of action on this issue in the US, I'm eager to see how this mobilization plays out. In SF I'll be joining a bike ride tracing future sea level. There are several other events here, including a walk for farm animals and your typical rally. There are actions all over, some of which are coordinated through this website. There might be others that are not affiliated with this group. Find one near you.

Also worth noting is the Great Climate Swoop that took place this week at the Ratcliffe coal fired power station in the UK Midlands. Props to that energetic and clever crew. I definitely miss that dedicated attention to climate change.

Oct 19, 2009

Into Sequoia

After the fieldtrips I got into Sequoia National Park with some new found friends. We camped at Potwisha, highly recommended by locals we met at the conference. Conveniently, a star gazing talk started right next to our site! Presented by a park staff member with the fanciest laser pointer ever, this talk was a great reminder of another way to love nature. Flood lights at the KOA had obscured any stars peeking through the cluttered atmosphere in Visalia, but the dark in Sequoia gave the stars ample opportunity to shine, twinkle, and even shoot. We had ascended above the smog, which we learned had been accentuated by a 300-ish acre fire in Sequoia NP. We saw constellations, Jupiter, and the Milky Way, talked of myths and legends, and breathed a little deeper. Crossing the road later for more open sky, my posse saw a fairly massive mule deer before we lay back on the ground for more star gazing with water rushing below and critters noisily creeping in the woods.

Nature is restorative ... for me and many others. I slept well and awoke feeling fresh and smiley. One friend took off that morning, leaving 4 of us to explore the park. We drove through the Great Forest, admiring the massive Sequoia's, which adeptly shade the forest beyond the capacity of my point and shoot camera. At the Lodgepole visitor's center park staff confirmed that the Lakes Trail is a great choice, calling it "the best trail in the park". It's worth mentioning that park staff and locals in the Southern Sierra/Tulare County always steered us right on this trip. We were pressed for time and got the best advice!

We drove on up to 7,000 feet to park at Wolverton. After a snack we set out to see as many of the lakes as we could manage in a day hike. I've never hiked at such high elevation and was immediately getting my ass kicked. At times the dry trail required us to walk fairly far apart lest we inhale loads of dust. With an experienced marathoner leading the way, I felt less than fit but was truly enjoying the area. We couldn't have been going for more than 20 minutes when we saw a black bear, the first wild bear I've ever seen.

He hung about for ages, gnawing on sugar pine cones downslope. We took loads of pictures and gawked as he climbed the slope in our direction, crossed the trail and sniffed for more food. As resolute lovers of wildlife, we stood still and quiet as he started to walk toward us, perhaps curiously. Eventually, when he was about 30 feet from us, Price wisely, loudly said, "That's enough". Relief and disappointment mixed with persistent wonder and eagerness.

Seeing the bear so early in the hike made the shallow, dust-laden breaths worthwhile. Besides charismatic megafauna, there were hawks and other birds overhead, swift chipmunks, and the occasional lizard. Lichens, mosses, downed trees and fungus brought amazing color to the forest. Bits of melting snow remained in evidence of the elevation. Again, my camera, particularly when combined with my skills, doesn't do the scene justice.

We climbed beyond the dusty trails of the denser forest into an area dominated by granite outcrops and boulders. Boldly colored lichens grasped the granite and sparse conifers made the trail evident ... until we reached a spot that was just rock. We hiked to a terminus over-looking a long valley. I sat on the firmest looking boulder I could find and waited while my new friends looked for the trail. Much to my relief, we had missed a turn on the way to the Watchtower, which we reached soon thereafter.
Without trees to abbreviate the horizon, I had a bit of vertigo hiking along this overlook. Luckily the hike leveled out a bit along this rocky section of trail. I'm not great with heights but I got through this pretty well, maybe because I had no spare oxygen for anxiety. The views were expansive, stunning. Trees in the valley below looked so small and lichens colored the granite.

Oct 17, 2009

Field Trip to Atwell Island and Kaweah Oaks Preserve

As part of the California Invasive Plant Council Symposium I went on a field trip to Atwell Island, owned by the Bureau of Land Management, and the Kaweah Oaks Preserve, owned by the Sequoia Riverlands Trust. Both of these sites are in Tulare County, west of the Sierra between Fresno and Bakersfield in the Valley.

Given that Atwell Island is in a very dry area, even for the Valley, you might wonder how it got its name. The site was once part of Tulare Lake, an important wetland for birds, fish, and other wildlife. As part of the Pacific Flyway, Tulare Lake offered migrating birds a needed respite on their journey over the Valley. Management today aims to restore critical habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox, the Tipton kangaroo rat, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and one other lizard that I can't remember.

The area has changed dramatically since the reign of Tulare Lake, which was drained for agricultural use like many wetlands. Water diversions are used for irrigation, timing and directing the release of water to suit water-sucking crops such as cotton and alfalfa. Deep wells have also been sunk to extract groundwater, causing subsidence as well as ensuring that there is no water lingering at the surface in this former wetland. Irrigation methods leave much of the soil laden with salt, eventually driving them out of productivity.

The Atwell Island project reclaims retired farmland for restoration of critical habitat. Our tour of the site was amazingly instructive, particularly if you are interested in the intersection of agriculture and conservation. The land managers cannot convert all of the site at once, in part because they don't have enough seed to propagate native plants on all 7,000 acres at once. So they move slowly, converting about 400 acres per year at the moment. So there are still many fields with crops, such as alfalfa. They also used timed grazing to keep shrub density at a level that is suitable for the small focal species, which need a fair bit of bare ground (a common feature of desert habitat).

One of the coolest things about exploring the shrubs was finding a correlation between their genera and those found in salt marsh. Though the Atwell Island shrubs are in a very dry environment, they share with salt marsh plants a high tolerance of salt. I met these genera (Sueda, Atriplex) last fall in salt marshes in the Norfolk Broads. Seeing new species of them in a completely different environment was incredibly cool (despite the hot, dusty day).

I was really impressed by the whole project, especially when I heard about the efforts to reach out to the local community. The project has resulted in the hiring of a teacher through the summer months to work with local kids on science and environmental education. The use of grazing retains a culturally relevant use of the land, often important in generating local support. The development of a wetland site will create an amazing opportunity for local people to enjoy local and migratory wildlife, as well as a spot that isn't perpetually dry and dusty. I can't wait to go back when they have more of that element in place.

The Kaweah Oaks Preserve is a 320 acre gem of oak woodland, open pasture, and riparian habitat. In contrast to Atwell, a non-profit owns and manages the preserve, employing grazing and fire to maintain habitat values. Here the bedrock is much closer to the surface, keeping the water table higher. This has allowed the persistence of the oaks and riparian plant-life. The rarity of this habitat in the area makes it all the more important to the local wildlife.

Our tour explored the use of herbicide and biocontrol to manage invasive plant species. I felt like I learned a great deal about biocontrol, though I'm still not an advocate. I was stoked to hear that most efforts employed prescribed burns and timed grazing. Again the management kept a culturally relevant activity on the land, and the manager clearly had a great relationship with the farmer.

We saw some really amazing grasses, including clonal perennials and saltgrass. The latter has visible salt crystals on the blades, enticing grazers and eliminating the need for a manufactured salt lick. The shade of the oak groves gave us a fantastic break from the sun and dust as well as a chance to hear some really loud, persistent birds. We saw a migration of turkey vultures overhead, at least 25 of them soaring on thermal gusts very high in the sky. In the mix was a red-tail hawk according to the clever birders carrying binoculars.

This preserve is open to the public and I recommend it if you're in the area. Check the website for details. The land manager was really helpful after the tour when we asked him about getting into Sequoia National Park. He recommended the Lakes Trail, which we hiked on Sunday. It was a great call, backed up by park staff at the visitors center, who called it "the best trail in the park". I'll put pix up from that hike in a day or so.

Oct 13, 2009

Dispatch from the ... Rain?

Oddly, it's pouring today in San Francisco and many other areas of California. After spending several dusty days in the San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra, I'm pretty stoked to see this early season rain outside my window. I can't help but analyze it from the weed worker's perspective, hoping it's a solitary event that will be followed by several warm, dry weeks. That might crash some of the invasive annuals that will sprout in the coming days.  However, as this is a heavy rain and we had a small one in September, they might be getting a boost.

Returning to the dust, things got better in Visalia about 2 hours after I wrote the last post so I'm going to back way up and spend a couple of days writing about this trip. I'll start with traveling from the Bay to Tulare County and get to Sequoia in a few days. Stay tuned for some pretty pix of the trees, lichens, lakes, and even bears.

I caught Amtrak in Oakland around 10AM on Wednesday with my bike and camping gear. The ride north along the east side of the bay offered fantastic views from the seats upstairs. I saw a coyote, squirrels, and waterfowl as we chugged past open water and salt marsh. Between fragments of beautiful bay habitat were large factories poised to take advantage of the harbor and railroad. Though most appeared purposefully nameless, I recognized the ever-polluting Chevron refinery and a PGE power station. Only a sugar factory had the temerity to associate its name and logo with its old industrial building and accompanying emissions.

When the train entered the valley the scenery became less enchanting. Agriculture replaced wetlands. Smog blurred the horizon in all directions, erasing topographical features in its apocalyptic haze.

I got off the train in Hanford to ride 15 miles to a KOA camp in Goshen. Large trucks losing dusty silage roared past in the opposite direction, washing me with debris and dangerous gusts. The flatness of the road hardly compensated for the fast traffic, dirty air, and rough shoulder. At least it wasn't hot!

Arriving at the KOA camp nearly 2 hours later was a relief. As I propped up my bike to go into the office a woman on a bike with cheerful purple and white streamers rolled up. We started talking and by the time I had registered we realized that we were both going to the Cal IPC conference. I deposited all of my gear in Beth's car and we rode toward Visalia to get some dinner and what turned out to be margaritas the size of a baby's head. I was so lucky to meet Beth at the campground. We were able to cycle back from the conference together each night, which made the dark, 8 mile journey a lot easier to travel. Especially when you add in all 3 flat tires between the 2 of us. I'd point out that both of Beth's were caused by puncture vine, as though the invasive plant knew we were in town to discuss the eradication of pesky plants. Seriously, how crazy is that?

Oct 9, 2009

Dispatch from the Smog

I'm in the valley. I'm really close to the Sierra, but cannot see it. The horizon is smog in all directions. It's gross. I've almost given up on going to Sequoia, as the air quality really makes cycling more difficult here. It's flat as a pancake in Visalia but my throat and lungs are not stoked. It's also easier to give up on going to the mountains when you can't see them. Maybe they're not there.

I presented my paper yesterday, and was a little off my game. Oh well. I've actually never been that nervous before a presentation. I'm usually quite comfortable with public speaking. Again, oh well. Frankly, I don't think folks are super interested in my research if their attraction to my fabulously beautiful poster is any indication. Most of the symposium is based in biology, which I find really instructive as my work really isn't biology. And nearly everyone is working on big big sites, projects, parks, etc. So my urban research is a bit niche. All the more reason to share though, I think. The student chapter of Cal IPC is pretty rad, too. Definitely the most useful bits for me have come from their end.

Still, I got some nice feedback and have learned new things. Unfortunately I missed the climate change session this morning. Oh, Murphy's Law. I hit something on the bike path last night, which meant that I had a flat when I woke up. I loaned out my hand pump recently and the person who borrowed it happened to break it. So try as I might, I could not get enough air in to my tire. So I had to walk my bike 8 mile from the KAO camp to a bike shop in Visalia. Amazingly no fewer than NINE cyclists passed me on the path, none of whom offered assistance. One who I encountered at a light, actually would not let me use the pump that was clearly attached to his frame. Needless to say, I do not love Visalia.

However, as I walked through town, a friendly cyclist saw me and stopped. I was only a couple of blocks from a shop at this point so I walked on with his directions. Although the mechanic was not in at Wilson's Cyclery, I liked the place. I had to go to Sierra Bicycle Werks eventually. I needed a mechanic because the wheel was clearly damaged when I hit this weird protrusion on the bike path. I would have seen a mechanic today whether I could have pumped the tire or not, basically. The service was fast, friendly enough, and affordable. I'd recommend either spot if you need bike help in Visalia.

On that note, while I do not like Visalia, I do like the KOA. The owners are very nice folks! So if you're passing through, it's friendly, safe, and clean. Except the air, but you can't blame Linda and her husband for that.

Oct 7, 2009

Off to Visalia and Sequoia NP!

I'm about to head to BART with my bike for my trip to the California Invasive Plant Council Symposium in Visalia. I'll go to Oakland to catch Amtrak. I'm taking that to Hanford, where I'll get off to ride 15 miles to a KOA camp in west Visalia. That's about 8 miles from the conference, so I'll have to do that distance each morning and afternoon.

When I finish with the conference on Saturday, I'll prob couch surf in Visalia for a night before I bike 30-40 miles into Sequoia National Park. It's foothills so that ride is going to kick my ass. But I should get a couple of nice days in there before I have to head back out, crash in Visalia/or Koa, then ride the final 15 miles back to Hanford for another train.

It may sound convoluted, but it's the only way I could work out to get into the park on my own steam. Hitching might be an option, but I was worried about getting back out. Now I know I can make my own way.

My panniers are loaded with the weirdest stuff. For example I have pinstripe pants for the conference, which I'll wear with my hiking boots b/c there's no room for fancy shoes. Best bit is definitely the meter long poster tube that I have to secure somehow. I'm hoping to find a rideshare back to the Bay Area for my poster! I'll try to get some pix of my bike to share. And I'll definitely get some of Sequoia.

Oct 3, 2009


By Round-Up I mean a gathering of loose ends, thoughts. Not the herbicide, but I'll start with weeds anyway.

I'm heading to a conference in Visalia, Ca next week to present my research on the recovery of urban habitat fragments following removal of two very aggressive weeds. I'm going to be just 30ish miles from Sequoia National Park. However, there's no mass transportation to the park from anywhere nearby unless you're there during peak season, when a shuttle has some limited stops. I'm going to have to hitch, which is less worrying going from Visalia. But when I think of trying to return to Visalia to catch the coach to get to Amtrak (seriously, it's that convoluted), I get a little worried. Is anyone going to be in there on a Thursday in the middle of October to take me back to mass transit?

I just can't imagine getting so close to this amazing place, to which I've never been, and missing it. Not to mention, I need the feedback from nature. I took a few weeks to celebrate, then got right back in to tweaking the presentation of my research for this conference, producing slides, a talk, a paper of that talk, and a poster. These are all good steps given that I want to publish this work.

But I want to go to Sequoia NP for a break! I want to access "America's Best Idea". Anyone else watching the new PBS special, "National Parks: America's Best Idea"? You can watch them at that link right now, which is how I'm seeing them since I don't have a TV.

If you noticed the paper I posted from my course, in which I critique the protected area (park, national park, reserve) approach to conservation, then you know that I was looking forward to this series. It's as personally divisive for me as I anticipated. The scenery is beautiful, when they're not zooming in and out of an historic photograph of some colonialist character (note that I've only seen the first two episodes). And the history is interesting, even when I'm disappointed in its portrayal.

So far this series tries to acknowledge the complete injustices of white European settlement across the continent. It presents diverse perspectives from people alive today while trying to tell an old story which is obviously biased in the historical representation by information that largely comes from that colonialist class. Ok, they try. But how they can say in one breath that tribes were pushed out of this park, then that park ... then resolutely switch back to celebrating the parks with nationalist fervor is beyond me.

I'll get more into that after I've seen them all. For now, I'm looking forward to watching the rest, especially as I try to access a National Park, which is purportedly open to everyone. How do urban people, particularly those of us who cannot afford cars (not that we all want them), get to these places? We may love them, need them, pay for them, but do we get to use them?

One more thing! I read a great piece about consumption and population by George Monbiot on Alternet. Check it out.