March 31, 2010

And Now a Word from Professor Carter

No, not the ex-president, but Prof. Ronald Carter of the Life Sciences Department at Miskatonic University, speaking of the guinea worm.

"The guinea worm, ladies and gentleman, presents conclusive evidence for the theory of Intelligent Design.

"We must remember, however, that it is not Intelligent Design for us."

March 30, 2010

Fred Harvey's Ghost Empire

RIde the Southwest Chief through some place like Las Vegas, New Mexico, and you see the empty building: one of many ghosts of a thriving Western restaurant empire.
For a long time Fred Harvey's name was synonymous in America with good food, efficient service and young women. Today, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone aware of the prominent role Harvey played in civilizing the West and raising America's dining standards. His is one of those household names now stashed somewhere up in the attic.

March 29, 2010

Nature Emerges from Hibernation . . . and Catches Fire

Three warm days in a row, and we are watching the big snowbanks shrink.

The flock of evening grosbeaks that hung around for the last month seems to have departed, and I have heard flies buzzing, while M. spotted a mourning cloak butterfly.

According to the weekly county newspaper, one of our neighbors saw a bear out of hibernation two weeks ago, although I bet it went back to bed during the last snowstorm.

So I was shocked, watching a Colorado Springs TV weather forecaster, to see all of the southeastern Colorado counties colored red on her map.

"Not another winter storm warning!" I thought. "Where did that come from?"

Nope, it was a "red flag warning" for prairie and brush fires.

Ah, the changing of the seasons.

March 28, 2010

Weather, Wildfire Forecast for Northern Rockies

Preliminary Fire Season 2010 Outlook for the Northern Rockies currently forecasts a dry summer.

Although the narrated slide show is focused on the Rockies from Grand Teton NP north to the Canadian border, you can also pick up some Southern Rockies information from the slides as well.

El Niño
has been good to the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, and pretty good to us in southern Colorado. At my house in the foothills, March brought at least three feet of snow, interrupted by melts, with April still to go.

Via the Wildfire Today blog, which also points out that the massive stands of beetle-killed pine in the Rockies are less likely to support catastrophic crown fires than are living trees.

While it may seem intuitive that dead trees will lead to more fires, there is little scientific evidence to support the contention that beetle-killed trees substantially increase risk of large blazes. In fact, there is evidence to suggest otherwise.
That was the "Katrina of the West," prediction, you may recall.

Using the Militia for Search and Rescue

Sometimes I joke that my little rural volunteer fire department truly is the "militia"—open to all, quick to respond, willing to defend a small area (110 sq. mi.), but unable to stay "in the field" for a sustained campaign.

On the other hand, some people have taken the "militia" concept in a different direction, and in Michigan, they find themselves being called on for assistance with search-and-rescue operations.

Unfortunately, some other people, ignorant of the term's historical roots, hear the world "militia" and think "right-wing crazies." But a telling observation comes at the article's end:
Amy Cooter, a doctoral candidate in sociology at University of Michigan, has been studying the militia movement for two years and has interviewed a representative of every unit she can identify in the state. . . .

Most militia members have achieved some level of college education, feel a strong need to be politically involved and simply want to be prepared in the event of a disaster, Cooter said.

“Most militias see their role as helping law enforcement and helping their communities when they need it."

March 25, 2010

Should Farmers Markets be more like Wal-Mart?

Joel Salatin, whose Polyface Farm is iconic in some circles, wonders if farmers markets and community-supported agriculture  could learn from the big supermarkets.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m an ardent supporter of farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA). Direct-marketing models linking farmers to buyers are as varied as entrepreneurial ingenuity. Generally, I’m in favor of anything other than nameless, faceless, opaque industrial food–based supermarkets.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to move this heritage-based food movement beyond 1 percent market penetration. Our nearest farmers market, founded nearly 20 years ago, has not yet had cumulative sales in its entire history equal to our farm’s gross sales in one year. I’m not bragging—I’m just pointing out how tiny the local food network is. So what’s holding it back?
Or are we dealing with the "hipsters' dilemma" applied to small-scale agriculture: "No one goes there anymore, it's too popular."

(Via Rod Dreher, who is still occasionally crunchy.)

March 23, 2010

'Last Supper' Paintings Show Agricultural Gains

I have always been fascinated by the work of those who study the backgrounds and details of historic paintings in search of information on culture, environment, and so on.

In this case, researchers claim that changing food portions on the table in front of Jesus and his disciples demonstrate agricultural improvements:
American academics analysed 52 of the most famous depictions of the Last Supper, painted between 1000 and 2000 AD, and found that the appetites of the Apostles have become increasingly prodigious.

The size of the main dish grew 69.2 per cent over the millenium, while plates grew by 65.6 per cent and bread portions by 23.1 per cent.
 One of the researchers, Brian Wansick of Cornell University, is a supporter of the Small Plate Movement, according to his web page.

March 22, 2010

Forest Fires in 1910 and 2010

Even as the snow has been falling, I have been reading Timothy Egan's The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America.

The "Big Burn," a convergence of lightning-caused wildfires in August 1910, burned parts of Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia.

It covered an area larger than Las Animas County, Colorado, or almost as large as the San Luis Valley. More than eighty people were killed, most of them untrained, hastily recruited firefighters.

Author Timothy Egan follows the same technique that he used in his Dust Bowl history, The Worst Hard TIme: following a small group of characters through the event.

One of the central characters is Forest Service assistant ranger (no college degree) Ed Pulaski (yes, pulaski as in the tool), who saves his crew when the forest explodes around them but who is then shafted by the nascent Forest Service bureaucracy.

So how did the Big Burn "save America"?  Apparently Egan is thinking like this:

Theodore Roosevelt, inspired by Gifford Pinchot and  John Muir, established many national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges.

The national forests were under the direction of Pinchot's new Forest Service, which was underpaid, spread thin, and generally got little respect in the West.

Although the Forest Service could not stop the Big Burn (and probably could not do so today), its truly heroic efforts were a public-relations victory.

That p.r. victory ensured that Roosevelt's vision of national forests, conservation, and public resources managed (in theory) for the benefit of all did not perish under his less-committed successors, notably the blubbery, indecisive William Howard Taft.

Thus the national forests, which Roosevelt  saw as a vital part of our national heritage, were preserved, hence "saving America."

On the down side, the catastrophe of the Big Burn produced the Forest Service policy of putting out all fires as quickly as possibly, which we now pay for in terms of a new generation of catastrophic fires fed by fuel-rich forests. 

For more, here is Smithsonian magazine's interview with Timothy Egan. You can listen to Egan's interview on NPR's Fresh Air.

Quibbles: Appreciative audiences shout, "Hear, hear," not  "Here, here" (what would that mean, in this place?). About half of Egan's statements regarding firearms are implausible or nonsensical. Apparently no one at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt can edit such statements.

And where on earth did he get the idea that Coeur d'Alene means "Heart of the Awl"? Wikipedia, evidently‚ and maybe he just cut-and-pasted. There is a reason why university professors tell their students not to trust Wikipedia. Alene is a old-fashioned girl's name, as a French friend once put it to me when looking at the map of Idaho.

But one thing early foresters such as William Weigle, first supervisor of the Coeur d'Alene National Forest, never thought about was the carbon footprint of forest fires.

Prescribed Fires Help Forests Sequester Carbon Dioxide?

When you watch a forest fire smoke plume rise into the sky, maybe you think about all the carbon it releases. Forest ecologist Jennifer Balch does.

In a recent NPR interview, she argued that her and others' research shows that prescribed burns, which do release carbon into the atmosphere, nevertheless make it possible for forests to regenerate and store even more carbon.

But one nagging question has been which puts more carbon up into the atmosphere, a series of small, prescribed burns or the occasional big wildfire? So, [Christine] Wiedinmyer developed a computer model to calculate that, using the record of both kinds of fires in the western U.S. from 2001 to 2008. She published the results in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Although the numbers are rough, the outcome is clear: prescribed fires do emit carbon but much less than the wildfires they prevent.
While some prescribed burns have gone notably out of control, others have worked well. Either way there is a risk, but the risk of a blow-up may be worse.

March 19, 2010

Why I Don't Much Like March (or April)

It's 21 degrees F. (-6 C.). Snow is pouring down, not predicted to stop until tomorrow afternoon, and yet my eyes are weepy from hay fever.

March 17, 2010

The Cadillac as Off-Road Vehicle

Another story of someone taking a wintertime short cut through the mountains and almost ending up dead. This time it was Louis Rogers, well-known in the Country & Western music field as a guitarist and session musician.

This line caught my attention:
After about nine miles and with dusk setting in, the road got too snowy for Rogers' 1996 Cadillac STS, which was loaded with musical equipment, so he decided to turn around - and got stuck in a snowbank.

And I flashed back to when a friend of mine and I, both about 25 years old, went deer hunting and decided to take a short cut in my 2WD Ford F-100 pickup.

Headed for the Western Slope, we decided to take the little gravel Weston Pass road from South Park to the upper Arkansas Valley near Leadville, cutting off some highway miles. It was October, and conditions were mostly dry.

But there had been a little snow a few days earlier, and on top of the pass I hit a patch of remnant ice.

Before I knew it , the truck was headed into a steep creek bed. Then I hit a boulder. So the good news was that we were not upside-down in the creek. The bad news was that a front leaf spring (driver's side) was caught on the small boulder and going nowhere.

We got out and looked at it. We had no come-along or anything to anchor one to if we did. (Off course, this was the pre-cell phone era.) It looked like our trip was ruined.

Then up the west side of the pass came a Cadillac sedan with a man and his teen-aged son in it. They had a two-way radio but couldn't raise whoever was at the other end. After some commiseration, they went on.

A while later, a local guy in a 4WD pickup came along, and he had a tow chain. A few minutes later, my truck was off the rock.

But what we remembered was the Cadillac driver's response when my friend Ed expressed some surprise that it was their hunting vehicle:

"Wah, we always hunt in Cadillacs.

March 15, 2010

Wolves Kill Alaska Jogger--Implications for Colorado

The recent death of a woman runner in Alaska makes me wonder how the "New West" world of outdoor sports would mesh with increasing wolf populations here in Colorado.

Perhaps some of the people who welcome the wolves' return for ecological--and even spiritual--reasons are also the same people who do things like trail running.

The woman who gets out of the car is forty years old, athletic, the mother of two children, with shoulder-length reddish brown hair. She wears a pair of blue nylon shorts, a cranberry sleeveless T-shirt, running shoes, a hat, and cotton gloves against the morning chill. She locks the car and puts the key in a little pouch attached to one of her shoes. Carrying an apple and a water bottle, she leaves the road, running down the trail into the neighboring state park.

The writer is Jordan Fisher Smith, at the time a California state park ranger, reconstructing the death of Barbara Schoener, killed by a mountain lion near Auburn, California, in 1994, in his excellent book Nature Noir.

A similar event occurred in Idaho Springs, Colorado, in 1991 when a high-school cross-country runner, practicing alone, was ambushed by another mountain lion. (More attacks listed here.)

I suspect that back in the Stone Age, people did not go running alone for recreation—or if they did, they carried spears and looked over their shoulders frequently.

Colorado has a healthy mountain lion population. Now we have wolves moving in—inevitable, given the increasing populations to the north.

I understand the ecological aspects of wolf return—the trophic cascade and all that.

But we also have a recreational culture that regards the Colorado Rockies as a big gymnasium-with-trees, put there for the express purpose of skiing, mountain biking, trail-running, etc. Imagine the interaction of a wolf pack with the Leadville 100.

No one goes to the gym expecting to be eaten.

About those "2 Inches" ...

That was last night's forecast from the National Weather Service. And below you can see what "2 to 4 inches" looks like. More like eight to ten.
I don't fault them completely, however. Usually the forecast is accurate. But "upslope" storms are hard to predict, I think, both in how much snow they will drop and how long they will linger before moving on.

(That is not our house but the guest cabin, if anyone was wondering.)

March 14, 2010

Snow Terror

It's snowing, which is normal, although we do get tired of winter by the third week of March. (Cure: go out and play in it. Must do that.)

Meanwhile, it's always worse in Russia.

March 13, 2010

The Vole in the Trail

 I had an odd wildlife encounter on my winter camping trip two weeks ago.

While skiing down from the Eagle's Nest Wilderness area, I met a couple skiing up with their big dog—some kind of hair-in-the-eyes sheepdog, wearing booties, no less.

Further down the trail (a dirt road in the summer), I saw a dark lump in the snow, and my first thought was that the dog had pooped there.

Then I came alongside the lump, and it moved. It was a vole. Since we were in the mountains, I assume it was a montane vole. (Photos here.)

It froze in a ball—not the smartest strategy when you are a dark gray animal on a white background. I tapped my ski pole near it, and finally it scooted back into the snow bank.

They make runways in dense grass and burrow under the snow as well. In areas with winter snow, voles will burrow in and through the snow to the surface.

 I had been hoping to sight a moose—we saw some old tracks—but had to settle for this vole-unteer.

March 10, 2010

Breaking Taboos that You Didn't Know Existed

Sometimes you find that you broke a taboo that you did not know exists.

A recent news story in the New York Post described a chef who made cheese from his wife's breast milk—with her permission.

The response has been generally positive from those who've tried the cheese, although many customers are too squeamish to attempt it.

"I think a lot of the criticism has to do with the combination of sex and cheese, but . . . the breast is there to make food," said Lori Mason, the chef's wife.

Back when I was a reporter for the Cañon City Daily Record, I wrote a weekly outdoor column in addition to my reporter/photographer duties.

In our accounting department worked a young woman from rural Fremont County whose father was a noted mountain lion-hunting guide. At one time Colorado paid a bounty on mountain lions (abolished in the 1970s, I think). A guide might get paid by a client and  collect the bounty, which helped buy food for his lion-hunting dogs.

Let's call her Debbie, since it was her name. A statuesque blonde, Debbie grew up riding and shooting but had never gone lion hunting. "The shoemaker's children go barefoot," as the old saying goes.

Debbie got married and moved to northwest Colorado near Craig. A few months later, she dropped by the newspaper office to see her old workmates.  I looked up to see her standing by my desk.

She had finally prevailed upon her father to take her lion hunting with horses and dogs across the rocky ridges of northeast Fremont County, and she had the photos to prove it.  Would I like to write about it for "Gone for the Day," my weekly column?

I always needed new material, so I sat her down and interviewed her. In the course of our talk, she mentioned that she was about three months pregnant, a detail that I included in my column.

After the column ran, the editor mentioned that it had received a couple of complaints from readers.

It wasn't the lion hunting that bothered them. It was that the lion had been killed by a pregnant woman.   Something about life and death and fecundity.

The editor and I shrugged our shoulders over it all. With my column, I had broken a taboo that I had not known existed.

March 09, 2010

A Slap from the Colorado Legislature

Because Colorado's lawmakers in their wisdom are trying—and failing—to make collect state sales tax, Amazon has cut off all of its Colorado affiliates.

From my perspective, the legislators were willing to sacrifice individual "Amazon affiliates" who happen to live in Colorado (like me). In return, they get nothing except the satisfaction of making some kind of point that will be lost in the general political noise.

I never made big money as an Amazon affiliate. It was about enough to pay my Web-hosting and email account bills for the year. Who knows, I might have spent part of my commission in Colorado and paid Colorado state sales tax.

But no more.

Way to go, wise legislators! (I just had to vent.)

March 07, 2010

Italian SAR is Piste Off

Search and Rescue (SAR) teams in the Italian Alps are increasingly unhappy with out-of-bounds skiers, reports the Times of London.

The official reponse? More rules:

In a crackdown on “avalanche tourists”, Michela Vittoria Brambilla, the tourism minister, announced that she was drafting strict rules, similar to the Highway Code, to govern off-piste skiing. 

Yeah, that'll work.

Pix, Pulks, and Plinking

February 26-28 I went winter camping for the first time in a very long time, skiing in to a site on the Arapho National Forest north of Silverthorne, Colorado.

Blogger Sawtooth has put together a slide show about it.

It was a good trip, but my old down sleeping bag is not adequate for -18 F. (-26 C), and if I am going to repeat the experience, I need to upgrade!

March 06, 2010

A Nature Walk on Mars

"Ready for a nature walk?" asked T__, the assistant fire chief, after we had donned our self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and walked out of the Big Sister Department's building.

"On Mars," I answered. That's what it felt like, all bundled up with the sounds of inhalation and exhalation all Darth Vaderish inside my facepiece—like I was exploring an alien planet.

We walked around the building, down the alley, up along the irrigation ditch, back around to the front. Slowly, watching our breathing. "Yogic fire breathing" suggests something else, but in sense, that's what it was. We're not trying to raise kundalini, just trying to make the air in the tank last.

Right: Firefighters prepare to practice putting on breathing apparatus in less than one minute. I can't do it yet--hoses and straps get tangled ...

I grew up around wildland firefighting. I have done a little. I have my federal "red card" certification.

Now some of us in our little rural department are going through Firefighter I state-certification training.  It's the real deal. Today, for the first time, I wore SCBA (borrowed). I climbed ladders in bunker gear and practiced hauling stuff up to rooftops, such as pike poles, chainsaws, and other ladders. More weeks of training lie ahead.

Luckily, the same knots I learned as a Boy Scout are pretty much the same knots used here, and they are still in my muscle memory.

Here is the irony:  I joined the local volunteer department 14 months ago after the county Search and Rescue (SAR) outfit told me that my services were not needed. That seemed an odd way to run a volunteer operation—there is always turnover. People move away or whatever. You need new blood all the time.

Now the local weekly runs an article on how SAR is looking for volunteers. Well, too late. I am committed to the fire service.

I think the fire departments are a little more blue-collar than our county's SAR. They are the people with mountain bikes and backgrounds in rock climbing and backpacking. You see more pickup trucks with lift kits at the fire department, meet more former military NCOs. But that's only a rough comparison—I would not push it too far.

I'm going up the ladder, and I'm thinking, "Two years ago I would have been grading essays on a Saturday in March."

March 05, 2010

"No: [sic] Plants in Soil"

So, like, um, how do you do a "science fair" without science?

Once again, supporting the stereotypes about Boulder, Colorado ...

This is why at low points in my career I never thought of teaching in a public school. Based on my career as a student, I would have been kicked out for disrespecting authority figures.

The first thing I would have told them is that the colons in the list of rules are useless and ungrammatical.

(Hat tip: MacRaven)

March 04, 2010

Now We Are Six

Tuesday (when M. and I were in Colorado Springs) was Southern Rockies Nature Blog's sixth "blogiversary."

And in tribute to such longevity, here is the first post, which I did not write.

That's right. This started as a class blog for English 325, "Nature Writing in the West," a course that I designed at CSU-Pueblo. (I don't know if it survived my leaving.)

Consequently, many of the earlier postings are by students. And it was hard to get some of the student writers to hyperlink names, terms, etc. in their posts--or even put titles on them!

When the semester ended, I hated to see the blog die, so I kept posting. Later other nature-writing classes also participated.

This is post number 1,358, by the way.

March 03, 2010

Cooking (and Meat) Made Us Human?

From the BBC, scientific speculation on how a change in diet from raw to cooked foods may have speeded evolution:

Without cooking, an average person would have to eat around five kilos of raw food to get enough calories to survive.
The daily mountain of fruit and vegetables would mean a six-hour chewing marathon.
It is already accepted that the introduction of meat into our ancestors' diet caused their brains to grow and their intelligence to increase.
Meat - a more concentrated form of energy - not only meant bigger brains for our ancestors, but also an end to the need to devote nearly all their time to foraging to maintain energy levels. 

(Hat tip: Bayou Renaissance Man)

March 01, 2010

When Dogs Tell Lies

It's a common observation that dogs have a moral sense.

Today I was reminded that they can tell lies as well.

I was out shoveling snow. Fisher, the Chesapeake, was quietly gnawing a bone. But Shelby, the ninja collie, kept trying to slink away down the driveway.

Just when I was about to give up on calling her back and put her behind the gate on the veranda, she spotting something off across the gully between our house and the neighbors.

She gave out an alarm bark and charged off across the gully. Fisher leaped to his feet and ran after, barking excitedly.

I suddenly suspected the worst. Calling them, I slogged through the deeper snow in the gully and up to the other side.

It had all been a ruse. There was no intruder on four feet or two. Fisher and I were both (momentarily) snookered. He turned and came back. She was gone, as fast as she could run.

A hour later she came trotting back up the drive, having made her rounds of the neighbors' places, just checking for free food or other excitement.

She has pulled that trick once or twice before. When will I learn?

High Country News Misrepresents National Parks Gun Law

On February 22, it became legal to carry concealed weapons in national parks and wildlife refuges according to the laws of the state in which they are located.

Most states require classroom instruction, a firing-range session, and a criminal background check in order to grant a concealed-carry permit. Vermont and Alaska do not require permits. Arizona permits "open" carry.

It's been a whole week, and mass carnage has not yet erupted.

Sitting her office, Betsy Marston, retired editor of High Country News, "views with alarm" the new regulations: "tourists around you might be packing an assault rifle."

(High Country News always seasons its good environmental reporting with plenty of stereotypes and liberal guilt.)

Right. Frankly, I doubt that Mrs. Marston could define "assault rifle" if you handed her a pencil and piece of paper. And even using Wikipedia evidently is too much trouble.

Let's go back to that key word: concealed. It means, "you can't see it," and that fact pretty rules out rifles and shotguns.

But why let simple facts get in the way of editorial opinions?

National parks are not always safe places, and the dangerous predators usually walk on two legs. (I prefer pepper spray for the four-legged type.)

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Sebastian of Snowflakes in Hell puts boots on the ground, looking for carnage in parks and monuments, but he finds none.

Funny about that.