Shooting Wolves in Washington State

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By Neva Knott

Not good. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced last Wednesday, August 20, 2014, that it would have to use lethal methods to control the Huckleberry pack because of depredation of sheep in Eastern Washington. Over the weekend, WDFW sent up a sharp-shooter in a helicopter to take four members of the pack, in hopes these deaths would deter any further attacks on the sheep herd. As of August 25, WDFW reports one wolf is dead.

This is the second such instance of WDFW-ordered wolf take. In 2012, the Wedge wolf pack was killed by WDFW because of cattle depredation. Not only did we lose wildlife, the kill cost the state $77,000.

I am pro-wolf. I’ve read all of the current science on the issue, have studied the history of human-wolf interaction and co-existence, and have interviewed people on both sides of the issue. What science says in the here and now is that wolves, and other top predators, keep ecosystems healthy and functioning. The presence of wolves in Eastern Washington doesn’t create a small change in the overall health of the region’s entire ecosystem; rather, it controls significant factors of the ecosystem. Other wildlife is healthier, vegetation and flora are healthier, streams are healthier, and the overall ecosystem works more systematically. The film, Lords of Nature, and the project’s website give good explanation to the ecological purpose of top predators.

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Photograph courtesy of WDFW.

The pervasive belief on the other side of this issue is that humans are the top predators who control the ecosystem. Not true.

Washington State does have a fairly forward-thinking Wolf Management Plan, one that is very similar to Oregon’s and to plans of other Western states. Wolves have made their way here from other states on their own; they have not been reintroduced through any program. The primary aim of Washington’s plan is to facilitate, “a long term viable wolf population while addressing wolf-livestock conflicts.” Development of the WMP began in 2007 and the plan was adopted in 2011. It is based on extensive peer-reviewed science and addresses the concerns gathered in a 95-day public review process, during which time 65,000 people across the state commented. Most comments were in favor of wolves on the landscape. Most concerns were about wolf-livestock interaction.

Currently, gray wolves are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. In Washington, they are considered “delisted” yet threatened east of the Cascade Mountains, but are considered endangered on the west side of the state. WDFW has parced the state into three recovery areas where they will monitor wolf behavior and population growth. As the population increases, its status will change from endangered, to threatened, then to sensitive. Hopefully, eventually, the gray wolf will have no such status in our state.

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So what makes a wolf population viable? As of the WDFW 2013 Annual Report, there are about 52 wolves in thirteen packs, with five breeding pairs that produced twelve pups total in Washington. Delisting can happen when there are four breeding pairs in each of the three recovery areas, plus three additional breeding pairs anywhere in the state for three consecutive years. Breeding pairs must produce pups that survive. Optionally, delisting can be based on four breeding pairs in each recovery area plus six additional pairs anywhere else in the state for one year. These numbers are based on a variety of methods of year-round monitoring.

In the annual report, you’ll find photographs, maps, and charts that document wolves in Washington. It’s worth a look.

The current conflict is between the Huckleberry pack and a sheep rancher, who is grazing his sheep on private timber land. There are new pups in the pack. The pack has taken down 22 of the sheep and has injured three of the herder’s guard dogs. This is a significant attack. Previous to this event, the depredation rate has been very low in the state. The 2013 Annual Report documents the next highest number to be seven cattle. In all of the reports I’ve read about wolf depredation, the rise in depredation correlates with pup season.

In the Environmental Impact Statement for the Wolf Management Plan, it is acknowledged wolf-livestock conflict is an area for further study. Here’s the rub–before wolves were killed off in the west so that the ranching industry could flourish, there was much more wide-open space, and much more wolf habitat. Now, the areas wolves roam–which can be about 300 square miles a day–are fragmented. Roads, clear-cuts, parks, ranches, break up the area of cover. Part of the conflict is that wolves more often come across human space, and sometimes, there’s a tasty food source, like sheep, just standing there. Sometimes, habitat fragmentation means that the ungulates wolves naturally prey upon, such as deer and elk, are not around.

Though it is sad that Phil Anderson, director for WDFW, ordered the kill, it is somewhat encouraging to know that the sheep herder and WDFW worked closely together and with wolf experts to stop further depredation after the first attack. After several scare tactics were tried and found unsuccessful, WDFW agents worked with the herder to move his sheep to a new location. When that failed to stop the wolf attacks, agents, the sheep herder, and a reporter from KING 5 news camped out to watch for the wolves, in an attempt to scare them off the herd. It was after these efforts that Anderson sent up the sharp-shooter.

I’m not saying that I agree with Anderson’s decision, though I do see how he arrived at it. In following the wolf issue in Oregon and now in Washington for the past four years, I do feel the WMP’s of each state are appropriate, but I do think more can be done to manage within the parameters of wolf behavior.

For example, one goal of Washington’s WMP is to protect den areas when pups are known to be there. My question in this situation is why was this particular herd grazing in high timber land when WDFW knew there were pups in the Huckleberry pack?

Second, what’s the availability of deer and elk as prey in the area? Again, the WMP includes a goal to manage prey populations so that wolves have enough food available that isn’t livestock.

Third, what pre-planning was done with the sheep herder, knowing that the pack was in the area and that pups were likely?

There’s a relationship between the sheep herder’s land as wolf habitat, available prey, and birthing of pups that I haven’t read enough about in WDFW press releases or in news coverage.

I’ve written an email to Mr. Anderson and have left a voicemail for Craig Bartlett, WDFW’s contact on media releases, seeking answers to these questions. If and when I get a response, I’ll write a post to share it.

If you would like to make your voice heard on this issue, please write to director@dfw.wa.gov

Even though the idea of wolves eating all of one’s livestock is frightful, it’s important to know that wolves kill relatively very few livestock animals. Wild Earth Guardians reports that only four percent of sheep deaths in Oregon (no statistics for Washington are available) are caused by carnivores–to include wolves, coyotes, bear, cougars and dogs. Health problems and cars kill many more cattle and sheep than do wolves. For me, this in addition to the cost to taxpayers for killing wolves swings the balance in favor of letting wolves live and expecting the ranchers to change their ways even a bit more.

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Image courtesy of Wild Earth Guardians.

The issue that seems to have raised much of the ire around Anderson’s decision is that not much publicity was given to it. The kill order hit the news cycle as it was happening. Although the WDFW departmental reply was that it was following the WMP, the public feels it had a right to know before the sharp-shooter went up. In reading the plan, I do think Anderson was following the steps outlined for wolf-livestock conflicts. In reading the plan, I do think Anderson sort of flew by the outreach and public education mandates. Even if the kill order was the next step in keeping the sheep safe, the public needed to be helped to understand why.

Even though I have these curiosities and agree with the general consensus about Anderson’s kill order being too much of a clandestine mission, I do–at least for now–think Washington has a viable Wolf Management Plan in place.

I also want to mention that Defenders of Wildlife is very active with all states that have wolves, and provide many cost-share programs designed to help with wolf-livestock conflicts. Their site also provides solid basic wolf facts.

Wolves are a hot-button issue here in the west. It’s my hope, in writing this piece, that people will form informed opinions. There’s a lot of propaganda out there, and a lot of emotion on both sides of the issue when it comes down to the news alert that a sharp-shooter is in a helicopter, gunning for a wild animal.

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Photograph courtesy of WDFW.

What if every person treated trees as if they symbolized life?

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By Neva Knott

Yesterday, I dug up the white pine I planted two years ago at my mom’s memorial. Then, I put it along the line between her back yard and the neighbor’s, next to a mountain hemlock. A few months later, I put in the fence, and the pine is destined to grow too large now that it’s in a confined space. So I dug up the pine and moved it into the tree line, or mini-forest, between the back yard and the school’s field below.

Let me back up for a minute here. In 2012 I lived in Portland, Oregon and my mom lived in Olympia, Washington. In a house she bought when it was built in 1982. In May of 2012, she passed away. She didn’t want a formal funeral, but wanted family and “friends who are family” to get together and remember her. So my sister and I held a small memorial for her at her house. At the time, we were planning on selling it; at the time, I had no idea it would become my current home. Particulars changed as I closed my mom’s estate, so I moved “back home” that fall. I have dogs, thus the fence.

One “friend who is family,” Jim, collects scraggly, displaced trees he finds. He’d had this little white pine in a gallon pot for a while, just waiting for it to find a home. Knowing my love of trees, and my fondness for big pines like the white and the Ponderosa, Jim told me he’d save it for me until I knew where I wanted it to be. I was staying with Jim & his wife the morning of mom’s memorial. Over coffee I said, “let’s plant our tree for mom.” During the memorial, we dug a hole, planted the then small white pine, and left it to grow as a memento of her life in that house.

Yesterday, while working gently with a shovel and then my fingers to massage the tree’s roots out of the ground so that I could transplant it, I asked myself this question: What would happen if everyone treated a tree as if it symbolized a life (thinking along the lines of this pine symbolizing my mom’s life)?

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As I worked the root system out of the ground, un-planted the pine tree, and wrapped it in a wet towel to carry down to it’s new place, I worked through the implications of my idea: 

On a global level, the planet would be in significantly less danger from climate change. Deforestation is one of the root causes of global warming. Also, trees breathe in carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas. Tree root systems control below-ground water flow by stopping erosion, filtering and absorbing water as it flows through the soil they’re planted in, thus fewer extreme floods with more trees, and fewer droughts–worsening flooding and drought is linked to climate change.

Tree leaves also filter pollution out of the air, working to keep the air clean. Not only would climate change be much less of an issue, air and water would be cleaner.

Trees are connected to food production. Obviously, some trees bear edibles–fruits, nuts, seeds. Trees feed animals and birds and bugs as well as humans. Many types of tree bark are forage for wildlife. Trees keep rivers and streams cool enough for fish species to flourish.

On the community level, urban trees keep cities cooler, and help to counteract the “heat island effect,” something that happens when air temperatures rise because of streets, sidewalks, and buildings. Trees add aesthetic and economic value to neighborhoods. The more trees left standing when spaces are developed for human use, fewer animals such as deer and coyote wander into cities, looking for habitat and food, sometimes causing conflicts with humans. Trees make our parks shady and cool on a hot summer’s day.

Each person’s life is better because of trees. The air we breathe is cleaner, as is the water we drink. Studies show that looking at greenery lowers anxiety and alleviates stress. By being surrounded by trees, humans feel more connected to all of life. Trees also provide raw material for homes and furniture and wood to burn for heat and cooking. Trees increase a home’s value and decrease heating and cooling costs.

Trees have been called the lungs of the earth. Not only are they symbiotic with humans because they give off oxygen that we breathe in, and take in carbon dioxide that we breathe out and produce/emit in various other ways, they connect to the other aspects of nature that make life on earth possible.

As I tamp down the soil around the pine’s roots in it’s new spot, I think again, what would happen if every person treated trees as if they symbolized a life?

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Building the Museum: Engaging Children with the Natural World

The museum in the author's basement, circa 1977.  Copyright, Richard Telford

The museum in the author’s basement, circa 1978. Copyright, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

In the late 1970s, unbeknownst to our parents, my brother Will and I used a can of white, oil-based exterior house stain to paint on the short wall of our cellar what my brother, four years my senior, had calculated to be a life-sized silhouette of an Ankylosaurus, an herbivorous dinosaur dating to the Late Cretaceous period.  My mother’s first awareness of something being afoot came with her discovery of the stain-drenched brushes soaking in the bathroom sink shortly before dinner guests were to arrive.  To their credit, our parents could see the spirit of discovery in such endeavors, despite the inconveniences they might bring.  The Ankylosaurus a la Sherwin Williams was, in reality, just one of a number of acts of scientific discovery that took place in our cellar, some being more illustrious than others.

Another view of the cellar museum in the author's childhood home.  Copyright, Richard Telford

Another view of the cellar museum in the author’s childhood home, circa 1978. Copyright, Richard Telford

I wince even now, more than three decades later, when I think about the host of frogs that took the one-way trip—despite our earnest intentions and efforts otherwise—to the subterranean aquarium we set up in several old fish tanks, or the formaldehyde-saturated dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias) that circulated for years around our cellar in its thick, two-ply plastic bag, never to be dissected—my intended but later abandoned state science fair project.  In spite of such false starts and misguided efforts along the way, our cellar was a thriving classroom, both for ourselves and for other neighborhood children.  The creation of our life-sized Ankylosaurus was not an isolated endeavor; instead, it was the visual centerpiece of a much larger undertaking—the creation of our own cellar-housed science museum.

A small sampling of the collection of seashells sent to the author's family in the late 1970s.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A small sampling of the collection of seashells sent to the author’s family in the late 1970s. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Several fortuitous events augmented our museum’s collection.  The first was a brief visit from a second cousin of my father’s who had a two-day layover in New York before leaving for a long stay in Germany.  Several months after her visit, she sent a large package from Germany to thank us for our hospitality and to encourage our interest in natural history, which had been evident to her during her stay.  The package contained a dilapidated box packed tightly with a museum-caliber collection of seashells.  For each specimen, there was a small, typed paper label containing its respective binomial nomenclature identification.  How this collection was acquired, we never knew, as we never heard from its sender again, but it took its place among our growing holdings.

The author, right, and his brother, at the Ontario Science Centre, 1977.  Copyright, Richard Telford

The author, right, and his brother, at the Ontario Science Centre, 1977. Copyright, Richard Telford

My brother and I were likewise fortunate enough growing up to have been taken to numerous science museums and centers.  During this period, most museum gift stores offered for sale Kodachrome slide sets of their collections and of related phenomena.  We had acquired quite a few of these sets over the years, and many were displayed in our museum on an inexpensive light board or projected through our Kodak Carousel projector on a contraband bed sheet stapled to a floor joist.  There was also a plaster cast of a latter Triassic Period Coelophysis footprint, made by us at Connecticut’s Dinosaur State Park.  The remaining tables featured local specimens of all things natural, mostly dead or inanimate, but some living as well.  We rounded things out with an Edmund Astroscan telescope, a four-vaned solar radiometer (which can still be bought at Edmund Scientific for $11.95), and an assortment of items from our kitchen junk drawer.  Our displays were laid out on simple plywood tables our father had made to serve as platforms for our model trains.  Signboards and related posters lined the walls. Thus, our museum at 73 High Ridge Road was born.

To the trained curator, the organization of our collections was nebulous at best.  A diorama with assorted sandbox dinosaurs—a staple of my childhood—might be flanked by a set of NASA Landsat image slides on one side and a lethargic pickerel frog (Rana palustris) housed in a mesh-covered fishtank on the other.  But that, truly, was the beauty of it. When children build the museum, no matter what the scale or whom the intended audience, they are not hemmed in by the strictures of the adult world.  Nor should they be.  For children, building the museum is an act of exploration, of engagement; it is a natural manifestation of their innate sense of wonder.  In the compulsive drive to deliver to children of all ages what we now loosely term “a 21st century education,” i.e. an unfettered immersion in the newest instructional technologies that cannot and does not consider the whole child, it is precisely these impulses in children—to explore, to engage, to wonder—that we must take great care not to dull down or blot out.  The risk of doing so is terribly real, and the evidence of this unintended result of our best educational intentions is soberingly apparent and has been aptly illustrated in insightful works such as Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, David Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia, and Mary Rivkin’s The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside. These innate impulses must be fostered, honed, and celebrated.  For a child, building the museum, whatever shape it may take, can achieve these ends.

A collection of small shells bought by the author and his daughter for three dollars at a tag sale.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A collection of small shells bought by the author and his daughter for three dollars at a tag sale. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

In Gertrude Chandler Warner’s 1949 book Surprise Island, the sequel to her classic The Boxcar Children, the protagonists, the four Alden children, build a museum filled with bird nests, seashells, dried seaweeds, and paper cut-outs of the natural phenomena they observe on the island where they are spending the summer.  While reading this part of the book with my five-year-old daughter, I told her about the museum of my childhood, and she promptly asked if we, too, could build a museum.  Over several months we have collected a variety of items destined for our museum: robin egg fragments, a dragonfly wing, abandoned bird nests, assorted shells we have collected along the Connecticut and New York shorelines, and a host of other items. We too have had some fortuitous finds, such as a vintage, divided candy box filled with small seashells organized by species; this we bought at a tag sale for three dollars, and we will divide its contents into small grab bags for each of the children in my daughter’s first grade class.  This is important, as our museum represents something of an evolution.  Ours will go on the road to my daughter’s classroom, and perhaps, as my daughter gets older and my two young sons enter school, it will keep evolving and growing, as good museums do.

By the time my mother sold the house of our childhood in 2003, the last remnants of white trim stain had long ago sloughed off the damp north wall of our cellar, leaving no physical trace of our Ankylosaurus or the museum for which it had been the centerpiece.  The legacy of that museum, however, is a vibrant, living one that, through my own children, may well outlive its creators.  It is too easy these days to blindly place the proverbial eggs of our children’s future in the technology basket.  It is likewise too easy to despair over the disconnection from the natural world that so many children experience now, and to accept that disconnection as a necessary by-product of our present age.  As David Sobel has noted, we must allow children “to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.”  Building the museum is a great way to begin doing so.

Trash-Less Travel

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Typical inflight meal. Photography courtesy of wiki commons.

By Neva Knott

The first time I ever considered that packaging and single-use disposable goods were a problem was on a Spring Break road trip to the Utah desert during college, circa 1988. I was traveling with friends. We stopped at a fast food place. As we un-bagged our food, one of my companions remarked, while looking at the plastic utensils, “So much packaging.”

What? Naively, I replied with something along the lines of, “Yeah, but if people throw it away instead of on the ground…”. Until that moment, I’d never considered that trash was an issue, unless it was left as litter on the landscape. I’d also never considered the problem with disposables.

My friend’s comment that March day 26 years ago left an indelible mark, and changed my behavior. I began taking my own coffee cup and water bottle to campus with me, started washing and reusing plastic bags and brown paper lunch sacks, and avoiding straws and plastic forks, knives, and spoons. A simple change of habit, and a simple shift in thinking. How many one-use food service items have I saved from the landfill in that span of time?

As I continue to travel, I continue to have an awareness of the trash generated by travel. Airports are full of single-use, grab-and-go products. Each on-board snack, beverage, or meal comes in its own container. Most of the packaging is non-recyclable and most airlines don’t recycle anyway. As I observed while sitting at my gate in Heathrow on my recent trip to Ireland, most people walk by and toss, not even looking to put the plastics in the plastics bin, the paper in the paper bin–signaling that established airport recycling programs are ineffective.

In her article, “Leaving Trash Behind,” Christine Negroni of The New York Times cites National Resource Defense Council figures, “An estimated 7.5 million pounds of trash is generated every day. While the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, says that 75 percent of that trash is recyclable, it has found that only 20 percent reaches a recycling center.” Negroni also acknowledges that research and action on this issue are lacking, “The council’s figures are from 2006, but are the most recent. The lack of current data was one concern of the Air Transport Association and the Airports Council International.”

NRDC’s 2006 report, Trash Landings, explains, “The U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans each year to build 48 Boeing 747 planes.” And “9,000 tons of plastic,” along with “enough newspapers and magazines to fill a football field to a depth of more than 230 feet.” On a personal level, passengers generate 1.28 pounds of waste per person, per departure. On my recent trip to Ireland, I visited four airports to get from Washington State to Cork; if I consumed at the average rate, I would have left behind 5.12 pounds of trash.

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Typical inflight single-use snack items. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

But I don’t consume at the average rate. I figure I have a choice as a consumer to buy or not to buy products in a terminal. So, to avoid taking part in the rampant disposability that is modern air travel, I plan ahead:

  • As much as possible, I pack fruit, nuts, and hard vegetables so that I don’t have to eat plane food or stave off hunger with expensive terminal fare. Smoked salmon and tinned meat, like Trader Joe’s smoked trout, also travel well, and don’t have to be kept cold.
  • I always travel with a water bottle. I fill it at a fountain as soon as I’m through the security line, and have found most flight attendants are pleasantly willing to pour water into it for me during the flight. Before I left for Ireland, I upgraded my re-usable bottle. I bought a Klean Kanteen insulated bottle, so now I can use it for water and tea (again, flight attendants obliged).
  • And, I keep a fork and a spoon in my handbag. This way, I can say “no thanks” to plastic utensils when I do have to purchase a meal while waiting for my connecting flight.

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Photograph courtesy of Klean Kanteen website.

On the longest stretch of my recent trip to Ireland, ten hours from San Francisco to Heathrow, I counted–I was offered eight beverage cups (and took none). Multiplied by the 500 or so passengers on an international flight? That’s over 4,000 cups. And that’s just cups–the Federal Aviation Administration, in Recycling, Reuse and Waste Reduction at Airports, published in 2013, states that in flight kitchens, “several types of waste” are generated in preparing on board meals. And, as any flyer knows, those meals come heavily packaged, thus incur more waste when consumed. Times 500 or so passengers per plane.

Green America, in the report, What Goes Up Must Come Down: The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry, February 2010, suggests that “an additional 500 more tons of waste could be recycled each year.”

The social norms of air travel don’t seem to include a focus on sustainability. Thankfully, organizations such as the NRDC and the FAA are working to shift perspectives and habits. NRDC’s report explains that 75 percent of airport waste is recyclable or compostable. The council also calculated that, if airports recycled at the national average of 31 percent, “enough energy would be saved to power 20, 000 households,” and carbon emissions would be reduced by an amount equaling 80,000 cars. Furthermore, “four airports with recycling programs studied by NRDC are achieving savings of more than $100, 000 annually.”

In researching for this article, I did find some interesting programs in place:

  • Oakland International Airport’s website explains that OAK is one of the first airports to recycle pillows–which are normally thrown away at the end of the flight. Oakland’s pillows are recycled into insulation or are used for making furniture.
  • NPR’s Julie Rose reports (December 2012), North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport uses worms to “eat through organic waste.” The worms have helped the airport reduce its waste sent to the landfill by 70 percent. Interestingly, the program even launders clothing left behind when a traveler’s suitcase is overweight, and then donates the clothing.
  • An article in Onboard Hospitality shares the anecdote from the 1990’s of American Airlines flight attendants spearheading an onboard recycling program, selling the recyclables, and then using the $200, 000 they earned to buy a plot of land for The Nature Conservancy.
  • Green America’s report suggests travelers take recyclables off the plane themselves, and recycle them at their destination. The article also includes a recycling report card for the major airlines–and nobody earned an A+.

The push to address the issue of the trash of travel is encouraging news. But, recycling is still a form of waste management. Lowering the amount of waste is crucial, and doable. As consumers, we do have choices. The power of our choices is that we can change our habits, which in turn will change the amount of trash we pile up when we fly.

Surrounded by Fire

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El Portal fire in July 2014 by Kirk Keeler

There are few elements, few phenomena that can inspire long talks of life and philosophy beside a hearth, fill a home with warmth and ambiance, or suddenly take one by surprise—instilling fear or dealing a blow of heartbreak. It is most certainly true that there are few elements in the world that can do what fire can do.

In California and along the western coast of the United States, a surge in wildland fires is being observed—not just in their numbers, but also in their intensity. It is hard to imagine that after most of the United States spent the majority of its winter pinned down due to record freezing temperatures and stunning winter snowfall—that much of the west did not share in the bounty of the Polar Vortex winter, specifically, its water.

In fact, California is experiencing a record drought—with some of the hottest temperatures on record, experienced throughout the state in the last three years. And this is one part of an intricate story that actually began, “A long, long time ago…”

In California, and specifically in the Sierra Nevada, many of the forest ecosystems evolved with fire as an important aspect of their natural processes. Some species of trees, shrubs and flowers actually depend upon fire as a part of their natural history or thrive after disturbance by fire.

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Smoke from the Rim Fire in August 2013 reached the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias a significant distance away. Photo by Kirk Keeler

The natural fire cycle within the Sierra Nevada was due in most part to lightning strikes and appears to have occurred in five to ten year spans of time. This frequency of fire occurrence served several key ecological purposes. First, it prevented significant fuel build up on the forest floor—in a forest, trees drop limbs, needles, leaves, cones, and other woody debris, grasses die and this results in an accumulation of materials that can fuel a fire. Thus, this material is commonly referred to “fuel” or “fuel loads.”

Second, with frequent fire and reduced fuel loads within the forests, when fires did occur the fire intensity was lessened, meaning it did not burn as hot or with as much severity as we experience today. The terms “intensity” and “severity” are key when discussing fire behavior. These terms help fire officials and land managers understand the implications of a fire on a particular landscape.

Another benefit of fire on the landscape is the recycling or release of nutrients back into the ecosystem. Often forest duff or debris is rich in carbon, nitrogen or other elements that are locked up and unusable until the material decomposes and can be reused through natural processes either in soil, through living organisms, in the air or taken up by animals. When a low intensity fire moves through a landscape it can release these nutrients, making them available to be taken back up into the ecosystem.

Thus, fire is a healthy and natural part of forest ecology in the Sierra Nevada but, you may be asking yourself, “What happened? That doesn’t sound like the fires I see today.”

That’s a great question.

When Euro-Americans settled in the American west, they brought a cultural perspective with them that changed the landscape we live in today. The perspective at the time and which can sometimes still be observed today, is that fire is—take your pick—“bad,” “destructive,” “dangerous,” and the list goes on.

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El Portal fire at sunset. Photo by Shauna Potocky

This perspective is very one-sided, human-sided, yet, it is understandable how and why people felt this way. One example to consider is how many times the City of San Francisco burned down prior to having a dedicated and established water resource. There are countless examples of fire being seen as thoroughly destructive.

The result of this cultural norm is that as people settled in forested areas of California, when fire did occur, it was suppressed—put out. This single act, of suppressing fires for decades, turned into accumulations of generations of trees and shrubs and subsequently shifted the fire regime in these ecosystems. Today, many of the forests in the Sierra Nevada are overgrown. The trees are crowded and densely packed and have significant fuel loads residing beneath them.

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Rim Fire at night with stars. Photo by Kirk Keeler

Last summer, the Rim Fire jarred everyone to attention. From private citizens, land owners, public lands managers, fire professionals, ecologists, wildlife biologists, restoration experts, researchers, politicians and many, many more. On August 17, 2013 the Rim Fire began in the Stanislaus National Forest. This fire grew to become the third largest in California history and involved 257,314 acres. The fire was so massive its plumes could be seen in the Central Valley communities of Fresno and Merced. It burned with various levels of intensity and severity, resulting in various impacts on the landscape and subsequently the viability of the soil.

The fire also generated its own weather, creating pyro-cumulus clouds. It was nothing short of stunning.

French Fire Pyro-cumulus cloud as observed during July 2014.

French Fire pyro-cumulus cloud beginning to form during July 2014. Photo by Shauna Potocky

The Rim Fire burned into October 2013. Upon reaching areas of the forest where active fire management strategies had been put in place, such as management fires to reduce fuel loads or areas where forests have been thinned, the fire was slowed and burned with less intensity. Thus, demonstrating the value of proactive fire management strategies.

Fast forward to today. California is another year into its significant drought—perhaps the most severe in California’s recorded history. Communities are struggling to manage water resources, reservoirs are shockingly low, and California’s forests are drier than they were last year—it seems we are in a remarkably challenging place.

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San Luis Reservoir at Pacheco Pass, California. Note the “bathtub ring” which indicates previous water levels. Photo by Shauna Potocky

And where there is a significant challenge, there is also a significant opportunity.

In one small community, situated on the edge of the Sierra National Forest and between the recent El Portal (4,689 acres) and French Fire (13,835 acres), something remarkable happened. These neighbors came together and utilized this intense fire season as an opportunity to do a few empowering things.

First, they got together to build a community of support, to ask and answer questions. They learned first-hand about where they live, the natural fire ecology of the landscape they live in, and the current fire regime shift. They learned how to minimize their fire hazards, how to live more in alignment with the native ecosystem and how to conserve water in order to use it where it is really needed. They also went further.

These citizens empowered themselves—by embracing each other as a neighborhood, as a team. So, instead of living in fear, they can be mindful of how to live in the landscape as well as be prepared. The community created a communication strategy to share information and look out for each other. They have meetings featuring experts in their field who have knowledge of the neighborhood landscape and can provide real input on what people need to know. They are seeking out opportunities to create their own Fire Safe Council and most importantly, they also help each other. When one neighbor needs a hand with fire clearance or hauling, they get to work helping each other.

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Current status of fire hazard is posted daily. Photo by Shauna Potocky

As many communities in California sit surrounded by fire, holding their breath as the last weeks of the California fire season eek by, there are things that can be done—it is an opportunity for citizens to learn and engage in the important aspects of fire ecology, to understand the historic role of fire on the landscape and the factors that have created the dynamics we see today, as well as understand important elements of fire behavior. It is also a time to empower people to come together to learn about their local ecosystems, deepen their sense of place by learning how to live in those ecosystems, as well as seek and support management strategies that will reduce fuel loads and return fire to the ecosystem—such as through prescribed or management fire.

In the long term, management strategies that help restore balance to forests ecosystems and embrace our understanding of fire ecology will also protect natural and cultural resources, wildlife, people and property. Ultimately, it will take every single one of us doing our part to help empower shifts in our historic ways of thinking.

Who knew fire could be so inspiring?

Resources:

CalFire: Wildfire is Coming Guide

CalFire: Fire Safe Council

Incident Information System (InciWeb): Current incidents

Ireland’s Sensible Energy Conservation Practices

By Neva Knott

Home, and going through my notes and photographs from Cork, Ireland, where I spent a month, late June to mid-July. Two years ago, I travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland for the same writing workshops. On both trips, I noticed the energy efficiency that is a well-integrated part of life in those two countries of the UK. What’s most impressive is that people in Cork and Edinburgh live very similarly to those of us here in the US. They depend on electricity for heat and lighting, have laptops and TV’s and all the other energy-using modern conveniences. Yet, UK household and per capita energy use is almost half of what it is here in the US.

Not only is energy conservation important in relationship to available energy supply, energy waste translates to carbon emissions and increases global warming. Also, energy conservation is smart household money management.

According to Lindsay Wilson of shrinkthatfootprint.com, households in the UK consume 4.6 thousand kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year, while US households consume 11.7 thousand. Wilson gathered these statistics from World Energy Council.

Wilson also cites per capita usage of electricity. Individuals in the UK use 1.9 thousand kilowatt hours per year, in contrast to the 4.5 thousand for each person in the US.

In Ireland and Scotland both, it is common to see on/off switches next to each electrical outlet. These switches accomplish the same cut-off of electricity flow as unplugging does. For example, each morning when I used the electrical water pot to make tea, I first turned on the switch, then turned on the appliance. When finished, I turned off the appliance and the switch. Same for the microwave, clothes washer, wall outlets. Use of outlet switches is an easy common sense measure. Here at home, I have started unplugging lamps in rooms that are only used occasionally, such as the guest bedroom, and I unplug my TV and wireless router each night. I also unplug my phone and laptop chargers as soon as charging is complete. Even these simple steps have lowered my kWh usage. Imagine how much good those little switches do.

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While going about my daily routine in both Edinburgh and Cork, I noticed the prevalence of automatic motion-sensor lights in public restrooms, hallways, and other such use-specific spaces.

Also, when shops and businesses close for the day, the last person out turns off the lights. At night in these cities, it’s dark, rather than needlessly illuminated by neon marquees and office windows still bright. Not only is turning off commercial lights at the end of the day an energy savings, it is better for nocturnal creatures, and has human health benefit as well. And let’s face it, leaving on those glaring signs and desk lamps on the twelfth floor serve no purpose anyway.

These common sense measures allow for necessary energy use at the time of need, and allow for abundant energy savings by simply switching off the flow of electricity when it’s not needed or in use. Additionally, Ireland has several programs in place to help residents further decrease their consumption of electricity, and other household energy.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland runs a program called The Power of One Street. The program outlines five steps to follow to lower household energy consumption. All steps focus on eliminating energy waste, controlling energy flow, and using attributes of the home–such as natural lighting, and making thoughtful, practical choices about energy usage.

Step 1 evaluates energy use for space heating, Step 2–water usage, Step 3–small power (appliances and such), Step 4–lighting, and Step 5–cooking. Each step takes just a few weeks to implement.

The SEAI website offers anecdotes of actual families that participated, explaining their initial concerns, the changes they made, and the savings in both energy and money. For example, by following the recommendations for Step 3, the Heffernan Family reduced their small power usage by 20 percent, which reduced their carbon footprint by 1.4 tonnes of CO2, and creating a 334 euro ($468) annual savings. The Brennan Family, by following Step 4, reduced their lighting usage by 34 percent, reducing their carbon footprint by .5 tonnes, and created a cash savings of 110 euro ($154) per year.

Practical measures are at the fore of Ireland’s energy management. The other significant difference I noticed was that the rhetoric is different. Energy conservation is not a topic fraught with tension and derisive language, it is not politicized into an us v. them battle. Take, for example, this from the report, Maximising Ireland’s Energy Efficiency–The National Energy Efficiency Action Plan 2009-2020:

“We have been successful in building a knowledge economy, attracting key international organisations because of a skilled and innovative workforce. We now need to challenge ourselves to replicate this success in the energy sector and create a smart economy, one that is underpinned by green goods and services and which leads the world in innovative adaptation of sustainable research. Internationally, the energy sector is increasingly seen by investors as the single most attractive investment opportunity available in a turbulent market. The United Nations Environment Programme, New Green Deal, seeks to mobilise the global economy towards investments in clean technologies. Ireland needs to position itself as central to this process, bringing knowledge, skills and robust practical research with it.”

This statement co-joins business, economics and the discussion energy conservation in a way I’ve not seen in the US.

I was similarly impressed with a couple of signs I saw. Both made plan and clear statements about energy.

One was posted in the dressing room of H & M, a global women’s fashion retailer, urging customers to wash clothes on a lower temperature setting:

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The other was the placard on a fuel tanker that clearly depicted the environmental danger of a spill:

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Here in the US the fashion industry doesn’t give voice to the issue of energy conservation by connecting it to the washing of clothes, and placards on tankers are an obscure set of numbers, letters, and colors that do nothing to communicate to the general public the dangers of spills.

People in Ireland and Scotland live very similarly to people in the US, yet it seemed to me that they have a more honest awareness of the interconnectedness between their way of life and their energy sources, and a more real view of the correlation between energy sources, the natural world, and environmental problems. Both Ireland and Scotland have adopted an attitude of solutions. I hope the US will soon do the same.

Last preserved area on the banks of Lake Geneva

Reserve

Reserve

Story and Photographs by Aurora Luongo

Near the area where the River Rhône enters Lake Geneva, there is a peaceful place for many species of animals and plants. Réserve des Grangettes, a wetland and natural reserve, is an important resting and hibernation place for migratory birds. The site is included in the Ramsar Convention List of Wetlands of International Importance, since 1990.

In 2011, after an extension of the site from 330 ha to 6,342 ha, the Réserve des Grangettes became the largest reserve in Switzerland to be listed in the Ramsar Convention.

The Foundation that manages the reserve, the Fondation des Grangettes, is 25 years old this year and makes a positive assessment of its activities. Indeed, its conservation programmes demonstrate having successful outcomes on biodiversity.

Many migratory birds stop in the reserve during their journey between Africa and northern Europe at spring and autumn. Moreover, 70 birds nest permanently in the area.

Birds

The site is partly accessible to humans, enough so that patient hikers can observe herons, kingfishers and several migratory birds, dragonflies (of which the site lists 36 species), green frogs and grass snakes. At dusk, it is also possible to observe beavers.

As for flora, the Réserve des Grangettes is home to 400 species of plants and its landscape is composed of reed beds, ponds, swamps and alluvial forests.

Although it is called natural reserve, the site is carefully maintained by the hands of humans, through actions taken by the Fondation des Grangettes. Human intervention is crucial, for example, to avoid the disappearance of marshes under bushes and forests.

Reserve manager Olivier Epars explains that the Foundation was created in 1989 to manage the Réserve des Grangettes, which is the property of Pro Natura, the largest organization for nature conservation in Switzerland; its actions include the development of a national network of protected species.

“The Fondation des Grangettes is also responsible for monitoring the site and raising public awareness,” Epars says. “It has allowed the building of installations for the public, as well as information panels, fences, an observation tower and the holding of exhibitions.”

As explained by Epars, the measures taken by the Foundation to limit the human impact in the reserve have had positive effects, particularly for birds.

“The creation of new habitats (ponds, lagoon, island and rafts) helped to bring back disappeared or new nesting species, like the little bittern and the black-necked grebe,” Epars explains. “We count about eight percent of additional species,” he adds.

The little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus), which is a kind of heron, is a species reported “endangered” in Switzerland and listed on the Red List of Threatened Animals. This bird disappeared from the Réserve des Grangettes in the 1970’s due to the decay of reed beds. Since 2013, thanks to the Foundation’s conservation program, a small population of this species is breeding again in the reserve. Currently, between 120 and 150 pairs of little bitterns nest in Switzerland.

A few months ago, a new nesting mast was erected to facilitate the return of another bird, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in the reserve.

New nesting mast

The osprey is not threatened, but its presence remains rare in Europe, whereas it was once a widespread nesting bird across Europe. In Switzerland, this species was exterminated one century ago. The disappearance of this bird is due to human persecution: the osprey was shot, its eggs were looted and its nesting trees were knocked down.

The European tree frog (Hyla arborea) is another species which benefitted from conservation activities carried out by the Fondation des Grangettes. Thanks to the creation of new biotopes, the Réserve des Grangettes is now the only place of the Rhône Valley in Switzerland with a population of European tree frogs.

As for the future evolution of the Réserve des Grangettes, Epars explains that new habitats will be created, and that the Fondation des Grangettes would like to create a venue for the public in the reserve.