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

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: Getting Below the Surface

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By Shauna Potocky

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the marine wonders of the world; it is a biological hotspot—featuring an array of remarkable habitats and teeming with biodiversity. The sanctuary includes sandy beaches, rocky intertidal zones and a near-shore deep-sea canyon—all of which contribute to the unmatched concentration of marine life, world class natural resources and endless opportunities for recreation, tourism and appreciation. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is nothing short of a national treasure.

In fact, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBMNS) is just one of thirteen National Marine Sanctuaries—each of which features world class attributes, making them eligible for federal protections. Examples include Olympic Coast, Thunder Bay, Gray’s Reef, Florida Keys and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuaries. Many people are not familiar with the National Marine Sanctuary system, their various locations and the innovative programs that set them apart as learning institutions. Equally important is helping people understand the valuable work sanctuary staff conduct in order to manage and protect these remarkable places.

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The National Marine Sanctuaries mission as stated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), who manages them, indicates that their role is to “conserve, protect and enhance the biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy of these underwater places.” The authority for establishing and protecting the sanctuaries comes from the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and NOAA reflects on this as, “one of the strongest pieces of ocean protection.”

Paul Michel, Superintendent of the MBNMS, has a deep passion for connecting people to the ocean and our national marine sanctuaries. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask him about the features that make the MBNMS so unique:

“The MBNMS is unique because of its land-sea connection; it includes 275 miles of California coast—this land-sea connection allows it to be directly adjacent to communities and accessible to user groups. The sanctuary also features an abundance of wildlife—it supports great migrations, charismatic mega fauna such as killer whales, blue whales and more. It is home to the California sea otter, and many of these animals and their unique habitats can be accessed or even seen from shore. For example, the deep–sea canyon is close to shore, it provides easy and accessible wildlife viewing.” He also added, “Because of the concentration of marine science institutions around the MBNMS, it serves as the West Coast’s equivalent of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (a world class facility focused on oceanographic and marine research). The MBNMS itself benefits from equally focused science monitoring and research.”

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It is true, the sanctuary is home to remarkable institutions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and Long Marine Laboratory, the marine science campus for the University of California Santa Cruz.

Regarding the greatest successes of the MBNMS, Michel reflected on a few recent achievements, including the newly built state of the art visitor center located in Santa Cruz, California, as well as the development of a model water quality protection program. In addition, the sanctuary has developed SIMoN, the Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring System , a website that focuses on long term monitoring of adjoining sanctuaries focused on tracking shifts within these protected ecosystems.

Along with these highlights, the sanctuary also features some of the best subject matter experts in kelp forest ecology and deep-water benthic characterization. Field science isn’t the only area of expertise though, as one of the most recent additions to the sanctuary’s programming demonstrates— new to the suite of programs is Your Sanctuary, a television production that helps visitors to the area connect to the value and resources of the bay.

As stunning as the sanctuary is, it also faces significant challenges. When considering some of the issues facing the MBNMS currently, Michel stressed that there is a need for increased funding for operations and programming. An increase in funding could then help with addressing some of the critical issues such as the pressures and impacts from land-based pollutants, such as chemicals, plastics and other waste that end up in the water, as well as tackling the issue of marine debris, such as lost fishing gear and nets that can continue to capture marine life, damage resources or run the risk of entangling marine mammals such as seals and whales. Of course, as climate continues to shift, the sanctuary is also facing issues associated with ocean acidification and sea level rise—these challenges are significant and need to be addressed and managed.

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When considering if the sanctuary is ready to tackle these challenges, it is reassuring to know that it is in expert hands and ready to address emerging issues. When asked how Michel would face these challenges, he replied, “Boldly! And with the best possible science and partnerships.”

Michel’s track record proves that he is skilled at working in partnerships and one tangible example is the completed MBNMS Exploration Center in Santa Cruz, “Partners are what made the Exploration Center in Santa Cruz happen,” he stated, “Without the donated land and fundraising that covered the cost of the exhibits—it couldn’t have happened.”

Partnerships and engagement take several forms, so if you are wondering if there is a place for citizens in the management of the sanctuary, it is exciting to note that there is a substantial role for both youth and citizens to engage in protecting their sanctuary.

Citizens have the opportunity to participate as a member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, a working group that consists of representatives from various stakeholder viewpoints including business, tourism, education, and citizens-at-large, all seated along side government and agency representatives. Together the working group provides guidance, recommendations and advises the Superintendent on sanctuary issues or management decisions such as on the establishment of Marine Protected Areas, Southern Sea Otter Translocation Program, Oil and Gas Exploration and much more. Participation on the council is an empowering and insightful opportunity—it is one not to be missed if you are inspired to make a difference.

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Today, there are thirteen NMS and one monument—but why stop there? Perhaps you know of a special marine area that is worthy of sanctuary status. If so, Michel shared this exciting opportunity to get involved—currently there is a program inviting coastal communities to submit nominations for establishing new sanctuaries. With only 1 percent of marine habitats protected worldwide, and only thirteen sanctuaries set aside in the United States—it is clear that together we can do more than just be awed by our nation’s marine wonders— we can actually protect them as national treasures and legacies for the future—perhaps the one you nominate will be number fourteen.

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Photo Credits: Kirk Keeler Photography

 

Creative Connections: An Invitation to BEGIN

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Keeping a journal is a powerful way to capture your journey. By looking closely, listening deeply, and capturing that experience, it allows you to discover, remind or reflect on the things you have seen, the remarkable places you have visited—even if this happens to be in your own backyard or beyond.

There are so many ways to utilize a journal—the scientific field journal, personal journaling, bioregional journals, art journals, travel journals, professional journals. The most important part of each of these is universal—you must BEGIN.

So as we start this New Year, this is heartfelt encouragement to grab paper and pen, dig up an unfinished journal or go find yourself a fresh one that can travel with you and BEGIN.

Journaling is actually one of my greatest passions. I began journaling through writing; utilizing journals both for studying the environment while in school and while doing field work as well as keeping personal journals to capture the chapters of my life. During this time, I never delved into drawing unless attempting to create a map of an area or capture some morphology of a plant or animal in order to confirm its identification.

Then—something remarkable happened. With encouragement, I was given safe space to try to draw in my journal—and these early drawings, I can assure you are not beautiful, yet served a valuable purpose, they gave me a place to BEGIN.

Journaling Shauna P.

Observing closely reveals details and patterns; it opens up a new level of understanding such as how the scales of a giant sequoia cone can hold nearly 200 hundred tiny seeds.

Now, with many rough drawings behind me, my journals have a new colorful and artistic element to them—which is not necessary, yet it demonstrates how continued dedication to journaling can transform itself over time.

If the thought of drawing fills you with fear then take this suggestion: write! Do what works for you—just BEGIN.

Don’t lose the opportunity to capture your experience because of fear of your writing or fear of your drawing. Be brave and put pen to paper, capture these fleeting moments and make them more powerful and concrete; create something meaningful and lasting. Today, you may have no idea how meaningful these early journaling efforts may become.

Don't miss the opportunity to get out there!

Don’t miss the opportunity to get out there!

Whether you would like to add journaling to your personal life, are looking for a meaningful family activity that can inspire young children to connect to nature, or if you want to add field journaling to your scientific studies, here are some great ways to get started, stay motivated and be inspired:

1)   Get out there! Grab paper and pen or pencil (one that you really like) and get outside. Slow down… sit quietly, observe and capture. What do you see? What do you hear? What time of day is it? Where are you? Write about your experience or draw what you see. Look at the landscape (big picture) or observe something small and close up. You don’t need fancy tools or training, you just need space to BEGIN.

2)   Take a journaling class: many art centers, nature centers and native plant nurseries offer journaling classes or nature clubs, which can introduce individuals to journal techniques and offer regular field excursions. This is a great way to get inspired, learn new ways of “seeing”, meet new people and… did someone say “Field trip”?!!!!!

3)   Families can journal together! This is a powerful way to encourage young scientists, writers and artists to observe closely and become connected to patterns, seasons, and ecology. This is also a way to provide quality family time and create something meaningful together.

4)   Pick up a journaling book, especially if you prefer to have examples and guidance; there are an incredible number of resources on journaling techniques out there. These can be truly inspirational as they often give you glimpses into other people’s journals and you can see how varied peoples styles are… and trust me, you will have your own style to add to this diverse mix too!

5)   My favorite rule is NO RULES! This is the primary principle in the journal classes I teach. Why? Because if constructs are going to hold someone back from beginning, then it isn’t serving them. So, do what feels natural—write, draw and BEGIN. As time goes on, there will be plenty of opportunities to hone and develop entries—so, do what works today—take pictures, do a collage, write a paragraph, poem or prose, whatever it takes to start!

Journaling is a powerful way to observe nature and the ecology around us. It can help us make connections by looking closely–such as what animals are around at certain times of year, when do the trees begin to leaf out, the flowers bloom and in what order, when do the acorns drop and the trees go dormant—or for this year… how cold is it or how dry?—depending on where you are. In addition, we can make connections not just within this season but from year to year, discovering variations and patterns.

It is also a profound way to capture our life journey and demonstrate how unique our lives are and how connected to place we can become. Our own journals can become our most profound teachers. We may capture moments and observations that serve as important discoveries in hindsight—answering the questions, “When did I see that last year” or “Is that how I was feeling then”? Through journaling, we may discover that perfect place that gives us the space we need to just be present.

A drawing from student, Jesus Angel Dolores, who once introduced to writing and drawing in a journal has now kept a journal each summer for several years.

A drawing from student, Jesus Angel Dolores, who upon being introduced to writing and drawing in a journal has now kept a journal each summer for several years.

There is also no denying how transformative encouraging youth to keep a journal can be. With busy lives and student demands, the opportunity to slow down, observe closely, discover, question deeply, and fall in love with nature and the world around us, can be truly powerful.  Students can discover and hone their own writing, artistic and observational abilities. They can begin to capture the chapters of their lives and perhaps make profound discoveries we could never even imagine.

Of course, all of these amazing outcomes can only happen if we BEGIN!

Resources:

Books

Clare Walker Leslie: Great resources for getting started and staying motivated. http://www.clarewalkerleslie.com/books.htm

Michael Canfield Field Notes: Amazing book that shows an array of journal styles for science and field studies. http://www.canfieldnotes.com/

Classes (California… get inspired and look for a class near you!)

John Muir Laws: Features workshops, demonstration videos and information on a Bay Area Nature Club. http://www.johnmuirlaws.com/

Intermountain Nursery: Nature journaling class with Shauna Potocky, offered at a beautiful native plant nursery, Saturday, August 16, 2014. http://www.intermountainnursery.com/classes.htm

Photo credits:

Journals, Shauna Potocky;

Valley Rim and Shauna P., Kirk Keeler;

Journaling, Kirk Keeler;

Stellar Jay from the journal of student Jesus Angel Dolores; Jesus Angel Dolores.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count has it all!

Ross' Snow Geese, MWR Kirk Keeler

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count event has it all—getting out there, a long history of tradition, hands-on learning and citizen science.  This year’s event is right around the corner so don’t miss it!

Each year during winter, enthusiastic birders and interested newbies, gather to participate in an event steeped with tradition; in fact, it is over a century old—with this year celebrating the 114th annual Christmas Bird Count!

As impressive as its duration, this event also inspires—it gets people outside—bird watching, counting and recording. Ultimately, this information is compiled with participants throughout the range of the event, in order to record, log and hold in perpetuity the observations of each year. The value of which, serves ornithologists and other data reviewers and researchers, in understanding bird populations and dynamics over a significant amount of time. In fact, this count is one of the longest running counts on record; thus, the data it collects is not just important for today but will help increase our understanding over the long run.

Bald Eagle, Sierra Foothills, Kirk Keeler

This year’s Christmas Bird Count will happen between the dates of December 14, 2013 and January 5, 2014. Participating in the bird count is free and by utilizing the Audubon website you can easily search for birding groups who are organizing a count in your area. Each group has a key person managing logistics such as defining locations or setting perimeters for making observations and compiling data collection; in addition, each field group will have an experienced birder as the anchor, in order to help in making identifications. It is an extraordinary opportunity to get outside, participate in some fun and engaging citizen science as well as expand your knowledge of bird species—and as a bonus, you might just have a few adventures and make some new friends too.

In fact, that is exactly what happened at my first Christmas Bird Count and it is by far one of my greatest bird count memories to date.

On a snowy Sunday in December 2008, I joined an enthusiastic team of birders, Katy, Ryan and Jeff. We rendezvoused at El Capitan meadow in Yosemite Valley; it was early morning and snow was beginning to fall. We discussed as a team, the logistics of counting birds in a snowstorm while trail finding on old dirt roads, snow covered trails, talus slopes, a creek crossing or two and finishing once again in Yosemite Valley. It was pure excitement for a team who just wanted to get out there, assist, learn and adventure… all at the same time.

Jeff, Shauna, Ryan Katy

Jeff was our expert birder, he could name every bird by sight, silhouette and song. What he needed from us, were our additional 6 pairs of eyes and ears. He could really do the rest—help us identify, as long as we could help look in the directions he wasn’t facing.

I can’t recall the exact number of birds we observed, but it was impressive, even in a snowstorm! I do recall seeing a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), Townsend solitaire (Myadestes townsendi) , Varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) and many, many more. Though, my favorite that year was definitely the Kinglets—Ruby-crowned (Regulus calendula) and Golden-crowned (Regulus satrapa) Kinglets.

Jeff diligently tried to teach us their calls so we too could discern their songs and chatter. He would do the calls and we would listen astutely as we tried to tease apart the notes, wanting so much to be able to identify the birds by call on our own. It was hard.

I asked Jeff to repeat it over and over and over again, which he did with patience, grace and a great laugh.

By the end, I almost had it!

It’s tough though—see, you try! Follow these links to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website and play the bird calls for yourself, see if you can really tell them apart.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

We ended our snowy birding adventure with a potluck, joining so many other volunteers who had spent the day observing and counting in other areas. We were cold, tired, hungry and very, very happy.

To this day, I can recall that particular Christmas Bird Count as if it were yesterday. Not only did I learn more about the bird species in my area, I learned how to really see, hear and observe them. I learned what was resident and what was migrating through during winter as well as which species occupied the various habitats along our observation route. Best of all, I made some of the best birding friends and memories anyone could ever ask for.

I hope your Christmas Bird Count experience is just as fabulous—and do tell. I would be interested in hearing about it!

Male Quail, Sweet Retreat, Kirk Keeler

Cool Tools and Great Resources:

Audubon website

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Bird Books: Peterson’s Guides; Sibley Guides;

John Muir Laws.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count

Photo Credits:

Stunning Bird Photography Photo credits: Kirk Keeler

In order of appearance: Ross’ Snow Geese; Bald Eagle, Sierra Foothills; Male Quail.

Christmas Bird Count Group Photo: Shauna Potocky

Quiet Giants and the Legacy of Public Lands: Part 2 of 2

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by Shauna Potocky

The dirt road leads to a fork, and from here you must decide, which path to take. The forest here, now in fall, is a mix of Black oaks, Pacific dogwoods, pines and firs. The light is filled with colorful foliage, illuminated gold, flaming red, greens in every hue. The air is crisp and the ground just damp after the first rains of the season. The road, in either direction, winds through the forest and leads you to a grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoia giganteum).

The Nelder Grove is located in the Sierra National Forest of California, south of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias that reside within Yosemite National Park. This grove, named for John A. Nelder, a retired miner who once called the grove his home, stands stoic and beautiful in the mixed conifer forest—revealing for all to see, it’s past.

Not all giant sequoia groves benefited from early government protection, as the Mariposa Grove did during the mid to late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and thus, some Sequoia groves were logged—massive trees felled for timber. The irony of which proved to be that the wood was not ideal for building since, when the tree fell it often broke apart—shattered or splintered. Thus, many of these logged trees were made into shingles, stakes and other smaller scale items.

The Nelder Grove had such a fate. In the late 1800’s, the grove was logged by timber operations. Today, among the approximately 100 standing mature and majestic sequoias are gigantic silent stumps that tell of the groves’ past. Just as the standing glorious trees, these stumps too, make one stop in awe—they take your breath away.

The realization that some of these trees have been cut down, in fact deepens the importance for all the trees which remain.ImageImage

There is truly an extraordinary gift in this grove. Here, among the tales of history, are some extraordinarily old and massive sequoias and among them, young sequoias reaching upwards. Together, they stand in a grove that is lightly visited and teeming with biodiversity—a forest thriving with the song of birds, the echoing pound of woodpeckers, the flow of running rivers and creeks.

This provides countless teaching opportunities—sharing with students and visitors the ecology, fire history, and species that call this area home, including one of the Sierra’s most elusive sensitive species, the Pacific fisher. Along side biology and ecology is the deep and rich history of this place; once used, the lessons learned, the values gained and protections established so these trees and their story can be told for generations to come.  And it doesn’t end there—there is a remarkable human story too, from the historic figures to the people who care for the grove now.

The grove came under management by the United States Forest Service in 1928. A campground was established and the grove benefited by the presence of campground hosts. John and Marge Hawksworth served in this role and together they assisted and educated visitors; going on to care for the grove for more than 20 years. While doing so they also passed a great love of the grove down to their children, grandchildren, and great grand children.

One of those grandchildren was Brenda Negley; Brenda fell so deeply in love with the Nelder Grove, that today, Benda and her family serve as the grove’s campground hosts—continuing a legacy of sharing the grove with visitors, educating people about the history and being stewards to this remarkable place.

In total, Brenda’s family has cared for the grove, in various capacities for over twenty-six years. Together, they tirelessly help to maintain the exhibits that are displayed throughout the summer and assist visitors with campground access and information regarding trails. Without a doubt, if you see a smiling, approaching face in the grove, it is almost assuredly, Brenda.

For this service, her family has received some notable honors, which now includes the 2012 United States Forest Service national award for Volunteer Campground Host of the Year.

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Along with this recognition, there have also been recent achievements for the grove including the establishment of a non-profit organization, Friends of Nelder Grove, Inc., which seeks to share and preserve the grove and its history, while making it accessible for the public to enjoy.

Then there are the unexpected surprises, the ones that confirm how truly important the stewardship and access to public lands, like the Nelder Grove, are to people all over the world.

During the recent government shutdown, visitors were unable to travel into Yosemite National Park to visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Yet, these same visitors, who came from all over the world to see giant sequoias, driven by the desire to see even just one tree, if just for a moment, made the trek down the dirt road to that same fork framed by oaks, dogwoods and pines. Their journey and moments of inspiration in the Nelder Grove, affirm that the preservation of these quiet giants in all their glory—instead of being used as a resource by a select few—are worth more when preserved for the benefit of everyone.

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Cool Fact: John Muir and John Nelder met in the fall of 1875, when Muir was exploring the region in search of giant sequoias. Named the Fresno Grove at the time of their meeting, the grove and Mr. Nelder are captured in Muir’s writings: Our National Parks, Chapter IX: The Sequoia and General Grant National Parks.

Cool Fact: Brenda’s husband proposed to her under the sequoia tree named for her grandparents, the Hawksworth tree.

Photo credits:

Award photo: Courtesy of Brenda Negley and Friends of Nelder Grove, Inc.

Sequoia photo credits: Shauna Potocky

Quiet Giants and the Legacy of Public Lands: Part 1 of 2

By Shauna Potocky

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Public lands are by far one of the greatest gifts we have been given. They were saved by passionate people who came long before us; today, teams of inspired managers, educators, scientists, and volunteers work tirelessly to keep these amazing places open to us and protected for generations to come.

The birth of these legacies emerged in part, due to the work and passion of Galen Clark, a man who was inspired while standing amongst quiet giants—the Giant Sequoias of the Mariposa Grove. Galen helped to capture the interest and support of many other individuals and from this a legacy was born. On June 30, 1864 the first land grant of its kind emerged, the Yosemite Grant. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln, the Yosemite Grant protected Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for all time—a legacy that created the foundation for what would eventually become our state and national parks.

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This gift of land preservation remains as profound today as it was then—yet, the true depth of this gift might still be emerging. Beyond the legacy, for example, the Mariposa Grove is teaching us—it is influencing how we understand and work within natural systems—from fire ecology to hydrology, sensitive species to ecosystem restoration; the grove serves as an important center of emerging knowledge.

When you consider that areas like the Mariposa Grove are some of the most protected land in our country—they become critically important classrooms and areas of study. Generally, protected with its natural systems intact, we can see precisely the effect of various management strategies and impacts. The results of these observations are impressive and profound.

One example of the lessons learned in the Mariposa Grove, is the influence of fire and the importance of its occurrence in Sierra Nevada ecosystems. This region evolved with fire as a natural part of its processes; a variety of trees and plants exhibit fire adaptations and require fire for germination—including the Giant Sequoia.

From the time of early settlers and holding fast in many areas even today, is the belief that fire is destructive and should be suppressed. Yet, the Grove has shown us a different perspective; when fire was suppressed in the Mariposa Grove for decades, concern emerged due to the lack of new sequoia seedlings. Land managers and scientists questioned this issue and eventually attempted to reintroduce fire into the ecosystem, with the result of new seedlings emerging.

What was found is that sequoias benefited from the understory fuels being cleared from the forest floor; the burned materials restored nutrients to the soil, opened space for germination and a new generation of seedlings could take root. Today, we see the importance of reducing fuel loads in order to maintain healthy ecosystems as well as reduce the risk of severe fires.

The lessons in the Mariposa Grove don’t end with fire ecology; in fact this grove has influenced our understanding of hydrology changes and impacts, invasive species, and plays a significant role in connecting people to nature.

Invasive species removal Mariposa Grove Ian Ojeda

Imagine putting your own hands to work protecting a Giant Sequoia in the Grove where the idea of land preservation began. Each year, volunteers of all ages work to restore impacted areas, remove invasive species and ultimately, become stewards to the environment.

What grows out of this service is a whole new generation of people with a passion for protecting some of the greatest natural wonders in the world—our ecosystems… and they take these lessons home to their own communities.

Galen Clark couldn’t haven known that his passion for the Giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove would play such a significant role in the creation of public lands or transforming our understanding of natural systems. What he did know was that the Grove was awe-inspiring and worthy of protection.

What will your passion help to protect?

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Part 2: Ponder the legacy of a sequoia grove that did not receive the same protection—you might just be surprised at what we find! Scheduled for release November 2013.

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Cool Fact: Through the Yosemite Grant, State Parks had been created, and from this, eventually National Parks would emerge. In 2014 we have the honor of celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Yosemite Grant and State Parks!

Photo credits: Shauna Potocky; National Park Service; Ian Ojeda; National Park Service.