April 30, 2011

Two Crazy Days, Part 1: "It's Blowing Up"

Friday started poorly. I did not even get to have my morning cup of coffee—nor were the dogs fed on time.

I had just returned from their pre-breakfast walk when the telephone rang—a fire call—a new fire, this one on private land. I quickly dressed for it, laced up my boots, and was out the door, and, intercepting our brush truck down at the junction, tucked in behind it and followed it east down onto the prairie.
A huge structure/trash fire burned down to coals—ready for a giant's  barbecue
It was a windy morning. An outbuilding full of trash at a run-down, has-been ranch house had ignited (no doubt due to human agency) and the fire was spreading onto the prairie. A neighboring rural department (we were across the county line) and ours responded. We worked it for two hours, then relinquished the final clean-up to them after our water tender was completely emptied—and it holds about 1,600 gallons. I was home by 11:30 and finally got my breakfast and that cup of coffee.

Archaeologists of the future may puzzle over that thick ash layer, littered with nuts and bolts, mattress springs, truck parts, sheets of metal roofing and all the detritus left by the Barbed Wire Culture, which was in the process of being displaced by the Subaru Culture.

Knowing that wet weather was in the forecast, M. and I decided to hike over the ridge behind the house and retrieve one of my game cameras that had been out there for a week. More about that later. 

And remember last Tuesday's inconclusive fire call about a lightning strike on a foggy evening? It turned out that the fog and drizzle had not put it out, but it continued to smolder up on its ridge.
Pike-San Isabel National Forest fire information officer Gregg Goodland explains fire strategy. District ranger Paul Crespin, far right, rear, listens in approval .
Not to worry! The Forest Service had had a previously scheduled meeting last Thursday evening, two days after it was discovered, with volunteer firefighters and other interested locals about general fire issues. As to this little fire, now called the Sand Gulch Fire, the Pike Hotshots (an elite firefighting crew) were up there building line around it and conducting burnouts (backfires) to contain it.

What about the high winds forecast for Friday, someone (not me) asked?  Well, it was hoped that the fire lines would contain the fire, which had burned about twenty acres and was nicely "reducing fuels" and improving bighorn sheep habitat. "'Let it burn' is not in our vernacular anymore," the presenter said, but he that when fire could be allowed to burn without threatening "resources" or "values," it often was.

A couple of Forest Service engines were positioned in the area near the homes located at the foot of that ridge, he added.

M. and I went for our hike with smoke in the air. We were downwind, and as we crossed over the ridge coming home, the wind was ripping over the top and the quality of the light was changing. It felt like "eclipse light," like you get during a partial solar eclipse—bright, but reduced in intensity.

I came in and downloaded the game-camera photos. She took the dogs out but came back soon. "It's blowing up," she said.

Now the sky was orange, the sun was a red disk, and wind had changed to a roar.

The telephone was ringing—it was someone from the sheriff's office.

(More to come.)

April 28, 2011

Waiting Out the Drought in Baca County, Colorado

The Pueblo Chieftain reports on the mood in Baca County, the southeast corner of Colorado, where it touches Kansas and Oklahoma.

The winter wheat needs rain, and farmers are waiting for moisture before planting corn, milo, and sunflowers.
The cattle herds—culled already during the 2002 drought and the blizzards of 2006-07—are threatened, with some ranchers already talking about reduction. There are more than 50,000 head in the county.

One of the consequences of drought could be to close federal grazing leases on the Comanche grasslands, which will be evaluated according to the conditions on a case-by-case basis. The county commissioners are studying whether to ask for disaster relief, which could open Conservation Reserve Program ground to grazing.

“It’s dry. People haven’s sold off cattle, but it’s coming,” said Carlos Crane, a Campo-area rancher.
It's the heart of the 1930s Dust Bowl, but we have learned some lessons since then.

Is the Average Size of Wildfires Growing?

Wildfire Today collects some interesting graphs that seem to say yes.
One statistic I concentrate on is the average size of fires, not so much the number of fires or the total acres burned each year, two stats that the mainstream media harps on. The average size is affected not only by the weather, but also by the fuel condition and age, how many fires were burning at the same time, the short-term availability of firefighting resources, the skill and efficiency of the firefighting effort, strategy used on fires, and the number of firefighting resources on the payroll of the firefighting agencies.
The commenters see this shift as being more about fire policy the deployment about firefighting resources than anything else.

April 26, 2011

Fire, Fog, and Deer

Young mule deer doe, April 2011
The warmer weather earlier this month had me setting out some camera traps.

I pulled this camera after a week, when the wet weather moved in. Since Sunday we have had rain, snow, sleet, and graupel—today with lightning.

I like this photo because, just by chance, the little doe positioned herself where the reflection in her eye would be in focus, which is what animal photographers strive to get. If the eye's highlight is in focus, you can have the animal's muzzle (or in this case, her butt) out of focus and the photo will still seem "right."

Two other camera traps are still out there. One is in a dry rock shelter, the other protected, I hope, by the fir tree to which it is attached. That camera is forty minutes' hike from the house, so I will check it later.

Partway through writing the post, I stepped outside, and it suddenly registered that I was hearing the fire siren blowing from down the valley. Before long I was dressed in my wildland gear and chasing the brush truck up the canyon along with two other members of the department.

Once again, the cause of the alarm was a lightning strike high up on a ridge on national forest land.

The conditions were damp and foggy, and it was far from any structures, so we notified the Forest Service and came back to the fire house. The FS may just choose to let it burn. In fact, we have a meeting scheduled with them Thursday to talk about all that.

As I made my way home, the deer were everywhere in the foggy evening light, wandering onto the highway and eating the fresher plants that grow along the road,  where the extra runoff from the asphalt causes them to green up quicker in a dry year.

Happy Birthday, John James Audubon

From Boing Boing, something different than their usual tech news: a birthday tribute to John James Audubon.

Though drawing birds had been something of an obsession, it was only a hobby until Audubon’s mill and general stores went under in the Panic of 1819, a failure his critics and many of his biographers have ascribed to a lack of ability or irresponsible distraction by his art. But nearly every business in the trans-Appalachian West failed that year, because the Western state banks and the businesses they serviced were built on paper...

(which is actually from an article in Smithsonian, linked on their site.)

Blog Stew with White Whine

• Do people really say this? I thought it was just an urban legend. From the meta-social media site White Wine, found via the meta-meta social-media site Social Media Bitch.

• Leroy and Darryl turn nature videographers and capture an epic battle.

• What happens when today's distance runners try "persistance hunting," Bushman style.

Blind cave cockatoos were formerly found in a Massachusetts zoo—one of several amazing zoo stories at Querencia. 

Another amazing zoo story, but only in an ironic way. "What is so scary about bunnies?"

Too Often, a Horse is Worth Nothing

Farmer-writer Frank James explains the obvious about why there are so many unwanted horses and problems with neglected horses.
Horses essentially have no financial value.  A recent column by Cyndi Young-Puyear in the Indiana AgriNews explains how most sale barns will no longer accept horses or ponies without a minimum fee.  That's because they know the animal is NOT going to sell and they want to be paid for their services.  These minimum fees run from $35 to $65 when any of the animals in question rarely bring more than $5 to $10 apiece.

It's pretty simple really when you think about it.  WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH A HORSE WHEN NO ONE WANTS IT?  OR CAN EVEN AFFORD IT?
All my life in the West, I have seen more horses owned for their . . . talismanic value, you might call it . . . than for any real purpose. They end up standing day after day in little pens and paddocks.

April 25, 2011

Food, the Relationship-Killer

It's like the 19th-century temperance slogan: "Lips that touch wine shall never touch mine."

Only now it's all about food.

And lips that touch (or do not touch) meat, gluten, soy cheese, artisanal cheese, milk and meat together shall or shall not ever touch or ever touch again.

“There’s this feeling that if we eat the same thing then we are the same thing, and if we don’t, we’re no longer unified,” Dr. Zerbe said. She and Dr. Jaffe said sharing food is an important ritual that enhances relationships. They advise interdietary couples to find meals they can both enjoy. “Or at least a side dish,” Dr. Zerbe said. 
"Interdietary" — the gastronomic equivalent of "mixed marriage."

A Little Break in the Dry Weather

Volunteer firefighters practice pumping water from a stream.
This morning the rain gauge showed 0.6 inches (with a film of ice on top), so I am deliriously happy rather jolly pretty pleased with that, even though it means we have had only about an inch of moisture in two months.

The only good side to the dry weather is that the leadership at the volunteer fire department has suddenly focused on recruiting and training, with weekly meetings for the latter.

This picture was taken April 14th, showing the first outing of the "new" engine, a 1974 Boardman "bumper pumper"—in other words, the pump is on the extended front bumper rather than behind the cab.

It was donated by Larger Volunteer Department Up the Road, which had had it on reserve status. It drives fine (only 8,000 miles on the engine) and the pump works, but we are finding a lot of leaks in the water system due to old age, which are slowly being chased down.

Since there is only one water hydrant in about 100 square miles here, being able to fill its 750-gallon tank from other water sources is essential.

April 23, 2011

HSUS Caught Fudging Membership Figures

Patrick Burns, who knows something about direct-mail and lobbying, describes how the Humane Society of the United States lies about its membership numbers.

So where does that 11 million number come from which the HSUS features so prominently on its web site?  

It's a complete untruth. A magical fabrication.  A fantastic fraud. 

It's a LIE.  Eleven million is not even in the same time zone as the truth.

So why lie?  What's that all about?

Simple:  Lying is how the Humane Society of the U.S. claims unearned political power

Documentation is at the link.

Blog Stew with Slow-Food Rules

• Michael Pollan, with a little help from his friends, offers three new food rules.

 • Once again, the question "Is Sugar Toxic?" is answered in the affirmative by anti-carb crusader Gary Taubes.

•  Future Pundit posts on sunspot cycles—the real information is in the comments section.

Tracing the Cult of Bubba-Hotep

Although Professor Houlahan locates the cult of the Emperor Bubba-Hotep as primarily occupying a swath of territory stretching from Maryland to Missouri, it is clear from my own excavations that cultic outliers are to be found in the Southern Rockies as well.

I have seen numerous votive offerings of the classic barbed-wire spools placed under sacred juniper trees, while other numerous offerings of food containers were sent "down the gully" if not "down the crick" not a hundred yards from where I now write.

In addition, followers of Prince Buckaroo-Hotep built little temples in virtually every canyon, valley, and mountain "park," where small groups gathered at intervals around cast-iron altars.

But what is most striking is the widespread evidence of a subterranean cult of Hotepism, whose devotees left behind miles of shafts,adits, and galleries as they dug deep in search of unnameable gods of the underworld.

April 22, 2011

In Which I Learn About Fennel

M. is watching the cooking show Simply Ming while making dinner herself. From my study, I hear Chef Ming Tsai saying something about fennel.

Call me provincial ("You're provincial, Chas") but I had never eaten fennel until yesterday. I grew up with lots of wild game (elk, venison, pheasant, etc.) and fresh garden vegetables, but the list of the latter was limited to what grew well in the harsh climate and alkaline soils where we lived. (Swiss chard, anyone? Rhubarb pie by the ton?)

I never ate an artichoke until my undergraduate years—nor saw anyone eat a raw pear with knife and fork—when I had the good luck to fall in with some students who would today be described as "foodies."  Even they never served fennel at their student-bohemian feasts (the first time I ever really enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner).

But the TV chefs—Lidia Bastianich is another one—talk about it so much that I started to think that the National Fennel Council was slipping them some cash.

(As for Chef Lidia, when she talks about fennel, I am reminded that she grew up next to Friuli, and that puts me in mind of Carlo Ginzburg's book The Night Battles, in which the benandati, 16th and 17th-century folk magicians who battled "the witches" in the dream state, were themselves told by the Inquisition that they were "the witches" and subjected to the usual penalties. Why this association? Because their weapons were fennel stalks, a weird little detail that perhaps make sense in the logic of the dream.)

So I made some noises about being deprived of the fennel experience and was rewarded with a dish of white beans, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, and fennel.

OK, so it's like celery. It adds crunch and a mild anise-type taste.

April 20, 2011

Waiting for Chico and for Rain

In the Wet Mountains, April 17, 2011

I took this photo of M. looking at the clouds on Monday. That night it rained, perhaps a quarter inch at most. I had not yet put up the rain gauge, not wanting to watch it fill up with dust. Most days have been dry and windy.

Today is cool and cloudy, but nothing has happened yet. It is nerve-wracking weather. We are sniffing the air like dogs for smoke.

And, weirdly, the male broad-tailed hummingbirds who usually arrive reliably on April 15th have not arrived. (At our house, of the males are called "Chico," just as all scrub jays are "Timmy.)

I hung up a feeder this morning away, like a lighthouse for hummingbirds.

UPDATE: I wrote this post mid-day at the library. When I came, returning from walking Shelby the lollie, there was Chico at the feeder, and a light rain was falling.

It's the power of new media!

Was There Nothing T.R. Couldn't Do?

The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.

And aren't you getting tired of nonfiction books whose subtitles start with "How the ..."?

Readers of the future will know immediately that they were published in the early twenty-first century.

April 14, 2011

Medical Marijuana's Claimed Contribution to Climate Change

An article in the San Francisco Business Journal links medical marijuana to climate change, via the energy costs of the crops.
People growing marijuana indoors use 1 percent of the U.S. electricity supply, and they create 17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year (not counting the smoke exhaled) according to a report by Evan Mills, an energy analyst at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

After medical pot use was made legal in California in 1996, Mills says, per-person residential electricity use in Humboldt County jumped 50 percent compared to other parts of the state.

In order to produce some 17,000 metric tons of marijuana this year, Mills estimates authorized growers will use $5 billion worth of energy. That works out to the output of seven big electric power plants.

But since Colorado also permits medical marijuana, I am waiting for one of the many clinics advertising in the Colorado Springs Independent, for example, to trumpet their "solar-powered MMJ."

(Via Ann Althouse.)

April 13, 2011

Rebutting 'the Paleolithic diet'

Atlantic Monthly blogger Megan McArdle questions the premise of the "Paleolithic diet": namely, "Are Grains Making Us Fat"?
I hear a lot about Taubes' theory from people pushing the notion that "we're evolved to eat meat and fruit, not processed grains".  I mean, true as far as it goes--but it doesn't go very far.  A ribeye and an arugula salad with olive oil and vinegar is almost as far from what our paleolithic ancestors ate as pasta primavera and an angel-food cake.  The meat our ancestors ate in the wild was not mostly fat-rich steak—game animals don't have that much body fat, and their muscles are a lot less tender.  We've selectively bred our domesticated animals for considerably more succulence than our ancestors enjoyed.  In the rich world, we've also stopped eating the "gamier", more vitamin-rich organs.  In fact, almost every fruit or vegetable you enjoy eating has been bred to be larger, higher-calorie, and full of less in the way of fibers and natural pesticides than what our pre-agricultural ancestors ate.

Check out her informational graphic about American diets a hundred years ago versus now. Not that much has changed, so ask yourself, what did change?

April 12, 2011

A Movie about Aldo Leopold and the 'Land Ethic'

The Green Fire is a new documentary about the conservationist Aldo Leopold.

The web site lists locations where it is being premiered. For some silly reason, Magdalena, New Mexico, is not on the list. Have they no sense of history?

But one could be arranged.

April 11, 2011

Animated Bird-Migration Maps

Watch bird populations ebb and flow with the season in these animated population maps, from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's eBird site.
While some of these maps match the known distribution of birds very well, some maps extrapolate into areas where we know the species does not occur. Often this is caused by regions of sparse eBird data, such as northern Minnesota, northern Maine, much of Nevada, sparsely-settled regions in the upper Great Plains, Montana, and elsewhere. In some other cases (south Florida for example), the habitat information seems to be insufficient to understand the landscape as it relates to bird occurrence. In all of these cases, however, we believe that more eBird checklists from these regions will improve the model’s ability to understand bird occurrence. So we strongly encourage you to check out our story that discusses the weaknesses in our eBird coverage in the United States, and to contribute any checklists you have from these regions.
It is fascinating how Western tanagers, for example, just explode up from the Southwest.

Attack from the Black

Last Wednesday some of the members of my little rural volunteer fire department went to a planned meeting with the Forest Service at the station of Larger Volunteer Fire Department.

But when we arrived, we found about thirty people watching a Texas Forest Service video about fighting range fires. Summary: "Attack from the black."

There was someone from the TFS talking with disdain about how their rural volunteers would attack fires while riding on the outside of moving fire apparatus directing water onto the fire. Well, unless you have the latest models with cab-controlled nozzles on the bumper, sometimes you have to do that.

There was also the chief of one little department who, thinking that a paved road was enough of a fire break, had taken his brush truck to make a direct attack on the head of a moving fire—while wearing a short-sleeved shirt and no gloves.

He was wrapped in gauze past his elbows, and his face was a mosaic of peeling skin.

"Attack from the black" means get behind the flames and come up on them from the burned-over ground.

Meanwhile, it turned out that the Forest Service had rescheduled their 2011 fire-management presentation and had not told our chief. Maybe we will do it next week.

Via Wildfire Today, here is a slide show of a big range fire burning in grass and brush in Stonewall County, Texas. Commenters lament the lack of protective clothing: "Obviously this is how business is conducted in Texas."

April 10, 2011

Box of Foxes

Rescued fox pup gets a drink of milk. Click to enlarge.
A couple of days ago, someone brought a young red fox pup to the people at Mission: Wolf. An adult fox believed to be the mother had been killed by a car, and the pup was found in a haystack.

One of their volunteers brought it to the rehabilitation facility run by Tom and Cec Sanders in Custer County. (They have a book out.)

Then another pup was found, and to save the wolf people some driving, M. and I agreed to pick it up in Westcliffe and bring it the rest of the way.

It seemed strong and not particularly dehydrated. Now it is sharing a heating pad, blanket, and stuffed animal in a kennel crate with its litter mate: a box of foxes.

Cece always puts stuffed animals in with young live animals. They like to cuddle and crawl under the stuffed ones. (It's kind of like the famous monkey mother experiment, but without the cruelty.)

There might be more fox pups up there somewhere. Either we will get another transportation call, or they will be goners before too long.

Assuming no health problems, the two rescued pups will be released in late summer.

April 09, 2011

Western Snow Pack Map for April 1, 2011

The snow pack map continues to show us in the tan--50 to 60 percent of average--with New Mexico looking worse.

If the map carried on east of New Mexico, you would understand why Chad Love has them bloggin'  Dust Bowl blues.

This map comes from the Natural Resources Conservation Service archive.

Back from the Wildlife Volunteer Banquet

What do you get for a table favor at a Division of Wildlife banquet? This handy "urban primitive" turkey call, made from a cocktail straw and a 35 mm film cannister. It works too, but I will stick with slate.

New T-shirts in hand, M. and I are home from the annual Colorado Division of Wildlife volunteer-appreciation banquet for the southeast region. It was at the abbey in Cañon City this year, not too long a drive, so we went.

There were door prizes and awards, a slide show of volunteers helping on various projectd—the usual. Some volunteers help by staffing regional offices and answering information-seekers.

The best part of the show was a series of true telephone conversations.

Some samples:
Caller: We saw a coyote in a residential area. Is it legal for them to be there?

DOW: Yes.
Never miss an opportunity for education:
Caller: There is an owl stuck up in a tree.

DOW: Owls roost in trees. 
Or how would this be for a wildlife-transport request?
Caller: I found an injured deer. I can stay here until someone comes.

DOW: Where are you calling from?

Caller: Pennsylvania.

April 08, 2011

A Power Grab that Hurts Colorado's Wildlife Agency

A proposal in the Colorado Legislature would merge the Division of Wildlife (DOW) and the Division of Parks (both in the same department), going back to the way it was forty or fifty years ago (1963-1972).

The supposed motive is cost-savings, but that makes no sense when you realize that the Div. of Wildlife gets its money from license sales and Colorado's share of federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear.

The division receives no money from the state general fund. State parks get a little, but that is a much smaller agency.

Former DOW  director John Mumma explains the funding here.

So what is really going on "under the dome"?

Some people are concerned that the traditional parks activity will get the short end of the stick.

But Todd Malmsbury at the Colorado Wildlife Federation sees the real motive this way:

This is, pure and simple, the latest effort--from the usual suspects--to bring the DOW to heel, to get even with the DOW for its independence and willingness to stand up for wildlife amid the rush to privatize hunting and fishing and open prime wildlife habitat to any and all energy development and urban growth.

After all, if it's not about saving money, then it's about power.

Colorado's Least-Funny Video

David Petersen of Durango explains a symptom of a greater problem with off-highway vehicles.

April 01, 2011

'Know the Condition and Ready State of the Coffee!'

For my coffee-addict backcountry pals: Canadian soldiers demonstrate field-expedient coffee-making in Afghanistan (language warning).

Evidently, se necesita una poca de gracia, as well as one man watching for insurgent activity. Hat tip: Say Uncle.

Birds Do It, Bees Do It, So We'll See You in Court

Organic farmers sue Monsanto.

[Genetically modified] crops have another interesting quality -- you can "use" a patented gene without even knowing it. When you download and share music and movies on peer-to-peer networks or plagiarize blog posts or books, let's face it -- you know what you're doing. But if you're a farmer, GMO seeds can literally blow in to your fields on the breeze or just the pollen from GMO crops can blow in (or buzz in via bees) and contaminate your organic or "conventional" fields. And if that happens, Monsanto or Syngenta or Bayer CropLife maintain the right to sue you as if you had illegally bought their seed and knowingly planted it.

Regardless of what you think about genetically modified crops, it has always seemed perverted to sue other growers for "patent infringement" after "patented" pollen has drifted onto their plants, thanks to the wind. But that has happened in the past.

If the suit is successful, not only will it limit Monsanto's ability to sue farmers, the company will have far greater responsibility for how and where its biotech seeds are planted. The regulatory free ride will be over. While that won’t eliminate GMO crops, it will at least give organic farmers a hope of avoiding contamination.