July 26, 2005


Scene: A "moose jam"--parked cars and people with binoculars crossing the narrow, twisting Moose-Wilson Road in Grand Teton National Park. A cow moose and her calf are resting in the shade under a boggy patch of willows nearby. Moose are sort of totemic hereabouts.

An SUV rolls by and the driver shouts, in perfect northern New Jersey intonation, "Th' fuck you lookin' at?"

I didn't know Tony Soprano ever made it out to Wyoming.

July 23, 2005

Forest Service must listen to citizens, judge rules

In a blow to the Bush Administration's so-called Healthy Forests plan, the Forest Service was told it must listen to public comment.

"The Forest Service tried to turn a law that only exempted actions such as mowing an office lawn from public comment and appeal into one exempting timber sales and other threats to the environment from citizen review," said Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center, which brought the suit.

Interestingly, Kenna is one of the founders of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a new group trying to bridge the green/blaze orange divide.

July 21, 2005

After the flames V

Previous forest fire entry

M. took a walk a couple of days ago into Babcock Hole, looking for a bit of unburned meadow with some shade, which she found after a time.

While she was resting there, a young mule deer buck (in velvet) came by. He looked all right, if a bit skinny. It was his behavior that seemed odd. Twice he nearly walked right up to her, she said.. He seemed disoriented or at least a bit dazed.

Not a quarter mile away--within a normal territory size for a mule deer--was an unburned hillside, with grass, forbs, and oak brush. But he was wandering around in the burnt area.

The official line is that larger animals have no trouble fleeing the fire. That is not always true; I have seen photos, at least, of deer who were unable to outrun a fire. It can happen, if not often.

We just do not always know what goes on with the other animals.

The Flycatcher's Paradox

M. and I came home from a trip in mid-June to find a Cordilleran flycatcher (formerly known as a Western flycatcher before the "splitters" got involved) building a nest under a rafter of our front porch roof, where a telephone junction box makes for a platform.

Back in the mid-1990s, another of the same species had built a nest in the same spot, but until this year, no flycatcher returned. It could not be the same female, surely, but we had to wonder if it was one of her descendants. Or maybe not.

She sat her eggs, even with big dogs barking on the porch, our comings and goings, hot days, thunderstorms, and all the rest. They hatched about a week ago, as the Mason Gulch Fire was coming under control. Two of the three chicks are barely visible in this photo, as sightless, gape-mouthed, little grey-feathered creatures.

When they hatched, the male showed up, and the adults both bring insects to the nest.

The flycatcher's paradox? When the female was sitting on the eggs, she would return to the nest from a hunting trip in stages. First she landed on the telephone wire that runs from the porch to a utility pole. Then she would hop about half the distance to her nest, watching for danger. Then she would hop half of the remaining distance. Her actions made me think of Zeno's Paradox--of Achilles chasing the tortoise. If the flycatcher hopped each time half of the distance to her nest, would she ever reach it?

July 17, 2005

"Hulking, Homicidal Giant Cowboy"

Alberta journalist and blogger Colby Cosh lists ten roadside attractions in his home province "that could induce nightmares in children and emotionally vulnerable adults."

Imagine the World's Largest Western Boot stamping a human face forever.

July 16, 2005

An Eagle Problem in Arizona

Should Indian tribes be allowed to do as they wish with eagles? Ted Williams gives many reasons why not. Their justifications are religious; their reasons sometimes financial, their methods crude to say the least. "In New Mexico one member of the Jemez Pueblo claimed that he and his fellow tribal members had killed 60 to 90 eagles during the winter of 1995-96 and that he had caught six at once by setting traps around a dead cow. He explained that the best way to dispatch a trapped eagle is to sit on it, get it to bite a stick, then ram your thumb down its throat so it can't breathe. They jump around for 10 or 15 minutes, he said".

What, you think all Indians hold beliefs like the ones in that Chief Seattle speech? Sorry-- as Williams documents, that's a fake too: the creation of a TV screenwriter.

Falconers, who revere eagles without strangling them, can only take one from the wild with special federal permission, and then only in areas where they are preying on livestock.

July 15, 2005

Urban Coyotes

Denise at the Ten Ring blog has some strong things to say about urban coyotes. (Check earlier posts too.) Actually, her disagreement is not with the coyotes, who are just being coyotes, but with people who simultaneously want them gone but don't want to take drastic measures.

July 14, 2005

After the Fire Stopped

Another hot day was coming, so I got up early, fed the dogs, and walked up the Forest Service road to look at the burn. The good news was that Babcock Hole was not the blackened cauldron that yesterday's Chieftain cover photo (see July 13 entry) led me to expect.

LEFT: Babcock Hole four days after the Mason Gulch Fire. This area is mostly just out of the frame to the right in the aerial photo below.

The bad, or at least spooky news, was that at some point (early Friday morning?) the fire had crossed our road. Had the wind blown from the SE, the fire could have circled around into the houses. But it had stopped, whether on its own or due to slurry drops, I do not know. And then a hand crew had scraped a fire line along the edge of the burn.

Robert Hamilton, who owns the small ranch at the end of the road tells his experience. (He never evacuated.) Fire-fighting has cost $3.8 million so far.

And I was right about the the T-shirts: "A silk-screening outfit from Silver City, N.M., was doing brisk trade with T-shirts and caps commemorating the Mason Gulch Fire."

Fluorescent pink, yellow, and green plastic flagging is all over the place. One strip on a neighbor's driveway was marked as follows, apparently as instructions to firefighters defending the house: "VACANT. Broken slider window. Sited 7-9-05? Propane needs shut off. Scrape away duff from deck & structure. Remove wood pile against house front."

I came home after an hour. M. was just getting out of bed. "I have news for you," I said. "A hermit thrush is singing in Babcock Hole."

July 13, 2005

Definitely Winding Down

Coming home after a day in Pueblo I was thinking about something other than the Mason (Gulch) Fire when a Sky Crane helicopter tanker (the one with the proboscis) suddenly lumbered into the air beside the road (from the little heliport set up at Colorado 96 and Siloam Road, if you know the area).

Other helicopters with buckets were still taking off from the Wetmore helibase in Virgil Lawson's pasture, and the post office door was still plastered with fire maps and notices, but the excitement is over.

For the first time, I was not stopped by a sheriff's deputy when I turned onto our road. M., home all day, says some definite "tourists" have been up the road to view the burn. Lengths of yellow and hot pink flagging tape are hanging here and there, but the big Fol-Da-Tank portable water reservoir not longer sits beside Hardscrabble Creek, and someone has removed all the fire hoses.

I think that I am about finished fire-blogging, although I will post some more photos. I will, as the occasion presents itself, write about the changes in the land after the fire.

Fire slows down

"Mason Gulch fire on its knees," headlines today's Chieftain. Reporter Pete Roper also quotes a typical area resident. That's my neighbor Del Paulson, a stained-glass artist, in the photo.

This photo by Chieftain photographer Bryan Kelson shows where the fire was stopped by heavy air drops to keep it off the Hamilton Ranch, the green part. M. and I frequently walk a trail that follows the ranch boundary. It will be the Green-Black Trail now. The left side of the drainage that runs to the left (Middle Red Creek) was the site of the prescribed burn in 2000.

July 12, 2005

Media encounters

I have not been taking any pictures for the past couple of days, although I plan to hike (sneak?) into Babcock Hole in a day or two--I have to go to the university on Wednesday and try to figure out where I was with a couple of projects.

Meanwhile, try the Colorado Springs Gazette photo gallery.

Before we left Burro Camp this morning, I had a phone call from a Pueblo Chieftain reporter wanting colorful quotes. Having been quoted in Friday's paper by a different reporter, I thought that I had become the go-to guy for evacuated homeowner quotes for this area.

But then, after M. and I had come home and were leaving again for town, we were flagged down by an SUV with two Denver Post reporters and a Chieftain photographer in it. (He had already photographed us while we were stopped at the sheriff's checkpoint, but hadn't asked our names.) I recognized him, congratulated him on some of his photos, and must have disappointed the big-city reporters, who maybe thought I was not fresh and unsophisticated enough for them.

After the flames II: All just speculation now

Even before we packed to return home, M. was trying to come to grips with what had happened. "I don't like change," she admitted. She had not been down the canyon since Sunday morning, when it was still smokey, and could only imagine what her favorite patch of the San Isabel National Forest would look like.

When I lived as a boy in Rapid City, South Dakota, one of Dad's favorite hunting spots was the McVey Burn, site of a large fire in 1939. I remember it as a mixture of forest and open areas, in contrast to the rest of the heavily wooded Black Hills, where "scientific forestry" and fire suppression had created a landscape much more wooded that that of the previous century.

The largest mule deer buck I ever shot lived on the brushy Poverty Mountain Burn in Frémont County, about seven years after the fire--great deer habitat. Just driving through the Hayman Burn southwest of Denver (site of the 137,760-acre Hayman Fire in 2002), you can see new meadows, abundant summer wildflowers, and a landscape that in many ways is more interesting than the thick forest that was there before.

That doesn't mean I expect everything to be wonderful. Some steep slopes are now bare, which means they can erode. The Hayman Fire burned over mostly decomposed granite soil, and that stuff erodes if you look at it cross-eyed. Erosion into streams and reservoirs and across roads was a major post-fire concern, and a lot of money was spent on various temporary structures to control it. The soils here tend to be more clayey, yet strong thunderstorms could produce mud flows and washouts. I am curious to see if any plants will sprout before autumn.

Salvage logging, if it occurs, would be on a small scale, I think. I do not anticipate a political fight over logging. This part of the San Isabel NF never produced much timber, and it has not been managed for it. Slopes are steep, and the ponderosa pines and Douglas firs tended to be slow-growing and skinny--again, partly due to fire suppresison. Occasionally you do find on the lower slopes big stumps of trees cut in the late 19th century, when the woods must have been more "open".

As for the trees, Gambel oak ("oak brush") will regenerate from its roots most of the time. Ponderosa pine will re-seed itself, creating new stands of too-thick trees, although in some places there won't be many seed trees left. The piñon pine in the lower foothills might come back, but much more slowly. Douglas fir and some white fir might come back in the moister places. Junipers can re-seed too, slowly. Rocky Mountain and one-seed junipers are basically gasoline on a stick: they burn fiercely and their fallen needles usually burn right down to the underlying soil ("mineral soil"), whereas a layer of pine needles often will not burn all the way through. It depends on the intensity of the fire.

That said, I expect to see fire scars that last for decades. Because this is not a timber-producing area, I do not expect the Forest Service to be replanting trees. The reproduction will be whatever happens on its own, most likely. If I am wrong about that, I will blog about it!

Today's report: Fire grew 500 acres, but it is 40-percent contained. In other words, they have a fire line dug around that much.

After the flames I: Fighting back

The big national weather news while the the Mason Fire was burning was actually Hurricane Dennis. I thought at the time that the one good thing about forest fires over hurricanes, in this ecosystem at least, was that the fire cannot repeat itself in the same place right away. Hurricanes can come back next year.

Forest fires can be fought, at least some of the time. In the 1950s, I think there was discussion of fighting hurricanes by exploding atomic bombs in the them, back when some military types were optimistic about meeting every tactical problem with an atomic bomb. No one ever tried it.

Big forest fires usually slow down on their own. The weather changes, or the fire encounters some obstacle. This fire moved rapidly on Sunday, pushed by a dry west wind. On Monday a cold front pushed into the foothills, reversing the wind direction and raising humidity a little. With that change, fire fighters could move in closer, I expect, and try to cut fire lines ahead of the fire.

Pueblo Chieftain: "Firefighters gain upper hand"

I am waiting for the critiques to begin. Should they have brought in ground crews on Thursday, instead of dropping slurry and water only? Did all that aerial attacking really make any difference in where the fire went? It certainly did not stop it from running along the ridge toward our place. I never saw that edge of the fire being "bombed," although I only had a clear view when I walked up the road to see it. Did no one think the fire would move in that direction, or did it just march on despite the fire retardant?

I heard that a lot of slurry and foam was laid down to protect structures at the Hamilton Ranch in Babcock Hole, and that the main house, cabins, stables, etc. all survived because of it. Being on the ground in Babcock Hole would have been a touchy situation, because there is only one narrow gravel road up and out.

Back Home

We came home late this morning (Tuesday), with gratitude to a number of people.

Thanks first of all to Hal and Mary Walter, High (Altitude) Commissioners for Refugees, who let us park the trailer at their place, provided moral support, and took telephone messages. And thanks to Patrick and Shannon O'Grady, who let us turn their mountain retreat into an office so that we would be proper 21st-century refugees with Internet access--and for the enchiladas.

And . . .

Food Aid:
Candy's "Coffee &" café, Westcliffe.
Burro Camp Security: Ted (a small dog with a big responsibility), Jack, Shelby
Burro Camp Chorus: Clyde, Spike, Laredo, Redbo
Burro Camp Backup Vocals: Various cows, coyotes, great horned owls

Thanks to the Castle Rock Fire Department (from a far southern suburb of Denver). I found the business card of a fire lieutenant on the dining table, so evidently they were the ones at our house (and the cabin?) last Friday. They had come about 100 miles to be here. And of course to the Forest Service crews, the Wetmore VFD, and the other firefighters from various places.

And to everyone who called, e-mailed, linked to this blog, or otherwise showed their concern, our appreciation.

July 11, 2005

Not about the forest fire

Two morning radio DJs in Arkansas were suspended for suggesting that no taxpayer money be spent on the ivory-billed woodpecker's recovery.

In my experience, the key to success in that job is having an emotional age of 11, so I am not terribly surprised. But some pundits view with alarm. "Church of Holy Earth"--the horror of it!