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Dispatches : Politics

Seeing Forests for the (Burnt) Trees: Wildfire and Watersheds

Hayman_Restoration-6Vail volunteers work the soil with the National Forest Foundation. Photo: Peter M. Fredin

Quick, name the three national parks closest to your home. Not so hard, right? Now name the three closest national forests. I was only able to name a couple of the 15 in my home state of California before having to look at a map.

I’m not alone, says Bill Possiel, president of the National Forest Foundation. “We think of national parks as these iconic landscapes. You could do a survey and find that a majority of Americans know the National Park System and many have visited national parks, but that is not the case with the National Forest System. But we’re trying to change that.”

The National Forest Foundation is an independent, non-profit partner of the U.S. Forest Service and this summer it launched a public awareness campaign aimed at getting more outdoor enthusiasts involved in the care of national forests and grasslands near their homes. According to the group, two-thirds of Americans live within 100 miles of a national forest or grassland.

Top on the NFF’s list of projects aimed at improving forest health is watershed remediation within areas hit by severe wildfires.

So what do forest fires have to do with the nation’s headwaters?

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President Barack Obama Declares Chimney Rock a National Monument

8009702157_106d7859cd_zChimney Rock. Photo:

On Friday, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating 4,726 acres of land in southwestern Colorado as Chimney Rock National Monument. Roughly 1,000 years ago, the Chaco civilization built more than 200 homes and farmed the land in this area, which is marked by two large rock spires at an elevation of roughly 7,600 feet. Once every 18.6 years, the moon rises between those two spires, Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, creating a moment known as a lunar standstill. Peregrine falcons, mule deer, and mountain lions live in the ponderosa pine, juniper, and pinon environments around the spires.

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Tragedy in Skateistan

As parents, it’s easy to get caught up in the saga of our own children. Their all-consuming schedules, school, sports, our own fraught expectations. We want them to be smart, kind, and game. We want them to play outside and be healthy. We want them to remember their manners, read books, eat their vegetables, have adventures. In short, we want everything. Kids force us to think beyond ourselves, but often we focus so closely on them that our world shrinks even as it expands: We forget that these concerns of ours are luxuries, that many families in many countries aren’t nearly so lucky. 

Like the families of four children killed on September 8 in Afghanistan in a suicide bombing. Khorshid, Nawab, Mohammed Eeza, and Parwana were street kids, and they were skateboarders. They were rippers, or wanted to become rippers. Now, after a backpack bomb detonated on a busy street, they’ll never get the chance.

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Pika: The Alpine Poster Child for Climate Change

Pika_flickr_wildxplorerA pika in its talus home. Photo: Karunakar Rayker

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

When Chris Ray got started studying pika, she could not have anticipated that these small rabbit relatives would one day become a poster child for climate change, which the species has, partly through the efforts of the Center for Biological Diversity to get them on the Endangered Species List. Because pika live mostly in alpine environments, are sensitive to temperature, and are poor dispersers, they are perhaps particularly vulnerable to increasing temperatures. In late August 2011 I joined Ray, a research associate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, at Emerald Lake in Hyalite Canyon, near Bozeman, Montana, where she has studied pika every year for the past 21 years.

Pika live in talus slopes, which are gullies of rock making gray stripes down the otherwise evergreen-covered rises around the canyon. Ray is gone from her tent at the campsite before 6:30 each morning, carrying equipment to the slopes, leaving her husband and her four-year-old son asleep. By 7:30 I head off with two young research assistants to join her. We call in to Ray and she gives us GPS points for her location. The first morning I go with them, it takes us a full hour to reach her. The rocks are piled up on each other and unsteady. The angle is steep. I'm rather obsessed with the distinct possibility of breaking my leg, and exhausted when we reach our destination, before the day's work, which Ray will continue without break until six or seven p.m., has even begun.

Ray collects data about pika presence and absence at 100 control points in a study area that is overall two kilometers by three kilometers. She also tracks temperature throughout the year using “iButton” data loggers dispersed around the talus. Using four different ear positions and five colors of tags, Ray ear-tags pika annually—this summer she tagged 45—thus recognizing their individuality, by which she can keep track of their mortality. To date she has tagged and tracked 625 unique pika; she has observed some individuals as many as nine years in a row.

Pika are saucy little bunnies, and they spend all summer "making hay while the sun shines," because they don't hibernate. One of the main things they do is cache "haypiles" in the rocks. That means they race around with flowers in their mouths much of the time. These little bunnies take the Goldilocks syndrome very far, with finely tuned sensitivity to hot and cold. While other animals have natural thermoregulatory responses to temperature fluctuations, the pika have to deal with these behaviorally. They don't hibernate, so they need a very insulating fur coat, which is good in winter, but in the summer it becomes a problem. To help deal with the winter chill, the resting body temperature of a pika is near its lethal maximum, which is what makes them intolerant to summer heat. Pika have to be out working hard all summer to collect enough food to last them all winter, and during the hottest part of summer days they take refuge in the spaces under the rocks in the talus.

While many have written the end story for pika by pointing upward and finding nowhere for them to go as the climate warms, Ray has in the back of her mind another idea. She wonders if what makes pika so sensitive and evidently vulnerable will wind up being their salvation. “Pikas are so good at finding the microclimate they need that they may avoid climate change altogether,” she says. Although that depends on a fairly stable mountain ecosystem.

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The Appalachian Mountains Have Lost a Hero

LarryGibsonLarry Gibson, keeper of Kayford Mountain. Photo: Vivian Stockman

The Appalachian Mountains lost a hero on Sunday, September 10. Larry Gibson, the face of the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, died of a heart attack while working on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia. His family ancestry on Kayford goes back to the 1700s and, since 1986, Gibson had fought tirelessly to stop the mountaintop removal mining that has desecrated the peaks surrounding his home.

Scores of mountaintops—more than 500 of them, according to environmental law firm Earthjustice—have been removed, literally, through this aggressive strip mining that starts by denuding peaks and then blasting away rock to get to the rich veins of coal beneath. After retiring early from General Motors due to an injury, Gibson had moved back home to Kayford and discovered that the land all around his ancestral home was essentially destroyed.

He started Keeper of the Mountains, an anti-mountaintop removal mining group, and fought this type of mining doggedly. His outspokenness earned him tremendous media exposure—he regularly gave tours of the mining areas to groups of reporters, and can be seen in a number of documentary films—but it also earned him numerous death threats. Gibson fully expected to lose his life during the battle to protect Appalachian peaks.

With the sudden passing of its 66-year-old leader, what will become of the fight against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia and across Appalachia?

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