Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thoughts on Winter Solstice

American Bison in Yellowstone National Park
Story and photo by Brian Kelly, Restoration Coordinator

Thousands of years ago, Celtic people built Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. Incredibly, they were able to orient these structures of massive stones to capture the rays of the rising sun on the Winter Solstice morning. Observance of the Winter Solstice must have captured the imagination of these people and held great importance to them.

Here in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21, 2011 at about 9:30 PM. During the Solstice, the northern part of the earth tilts farther away from the sun than at any other time of the year. So the days grow longer and the nights grow shorter as we head into spring and summer.

Thinking about the earth as a planet that tilts, rotates and revolves around the sun is a reminder that we are all travelling on one planet together. From that perspective, it's apparent we should all be working together to take care of our planet. Protecting and restoring this earth is like taking care of your home and your family and friends. It makes good sense and you feel good by doing it.

During the Winter Solstice, I like to reflect on the seasons that have past and look forward to the seasons yet to come. The natural cycles in the Blue Mountain region are spectacular in their diversity as the seasons unfold. Skiing the powder snow of the Elkhorn Range in winter, gazing at the velvet-green slopes of Hells Canyon in the spring, sitting in the cool shade of a ponderosa pine in the summer heat, and hiking in the red and gold leaves of autumn are all vivid in my memory. We take these seasonal changes for granted. But when you stop to think about it, the intricate web of life that is expressed in each of these seasons is truly incredible.

The Winter Solstice marks an important point during the cycle of seasons. As we travel through the seasons and as we travel through space on our planet, it’s wise for us to keep in touch with the natural rhythms of life on earth. And it’s a graceful life that moves to the rhythm of nature.

I wish you the best of all of the seasons to come.

Monday, December 12, 2011

HCPC attends AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco

Over 21,000 scientists from all over the world gathered at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco Dec. 4 – 9th. I was fortunate to be able to attend and present my work on satellite based detection of large-scale ecological disturbances and studies of global skin temperature, or land surface temperature. Attendees of the 2011 Fall AGU meeting traverse between three buildings making up the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco. Coming from La Grande Oregon, where the sidewalks are generally close to empty, it was exhilarating moving with a massive wave of people into the city for dinner at the end of the day.

I listened to presentations on global bioenergy capacity, treeline migration, global die-offs of trees, improving communication on climate change, the impact of drought and floods on the Amazon, challenges for feeding the world, and much more. I also got away from all the technical talk and listed to Simon Winchester tell stories about his own life, and heard presentations about the life’s work of prominent historic scientists, such as John Tyndall. John Tyndall was the first person to demonstrate that greenhouse gases absorb radiant heat in the laboratory in 1850, and then even recognized the implications of this discovery for effecting global climate. It makes one reflect on why we have come so far down this global warming path when we have had this fundamental information for so long.

While on the topic of troubling Earth system indicators, I listened to a prominent scientist describe his work with many others quantifying our exceeding of three of nine planetary systems considered in the study; Biodiversity, the Nitrogen Cycle, and Climate Change. We are now well outside the range of anything humans have ever experienced for these factors and rapidly changing most of the other factors, such as ocean chemistry.

On the lighter side, I dug an unwanted plant from an area of Golden Gate Park that is being managed to feel like an ancient forest. It was fun to get outside and do some physical work. It's worth noting that almost the entire park is exotic species because it was originally established on the beach sand dune environment. There were some native oak trees however, which can still be found growing there today.
Helping restore an ancient forest feel in the tree fern forest of Golden Gate Park during one of the AGU Fall Meeting events. I couldn't beleive how easy it was too dig in the soil compared to the rocky soil at my Eagle Cap cabin!

As I sat listening to the big changes that are already underway on Earth due to climate change and the unbelievably large-scale shifts in biomes that are expected because of impending climate change, I couldn’t help think of our conservation work. I for one, am very attached to the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, and even to little things such as the smell of a Douglas-fir plant community type in mid-summer, or the way light penetrates through the canopy at different times of the day. It is not easy to picture such big changes in our local Wilderness area. But I think it’s important that we get ahead of the curve and highlight the value of our current reserve system such as Wilderness areas, Roadless Areas, National Parks, National Recreation Areas, etc., as the best places we have to accommodate large shifts in the biotic community, mainly facilitated through natural disturbance processes. These are the only landscapes where these big changes can occur in a relatively natural way and I think there is real value in that from a conservation perspective. And through it all, large protected areas will still be areas where future generations can get into big open country, where solitude can be found, and a natural world can be observed, be it including novel ecosystems for which we have no historical counterpart. The entire National Forest System and Public Lands base is pretty well connected in many parts of the western U.S. and will serve as a corridor to the extent that our management allows for. I think this should be a key objective of the entire Public Lands base, as protecting connectivity of the landscape is the single most important thing we can do to aid plants and animals in adapting to climate change.

Other interesting factoids on our food production system:
1. Our food production system is responsible for 35% of total carbon dioxide pollution! In fact the rapid increases in global land use change (agricultural expansion), population growth and the increase in fossil fuel consumption are all very tightly coupled.
2. 40% of the Earth’s population is switching to a meat centered diet, creating a huge shift toward greater demand on global resources as the caloric benefit received from the meat is far less than the calories used to grow the meat. Particularly problematic is beef due to its water consumption and the massive amount of land allocated to grow corn for cows that isn't even edible.

3. Soybeans and cattle production continue to result in a one-two punch of destruction to the Amazon rainforest.

post by David Mildrexler, Ecosystem Conservation Coordinator

Monday, December 5, 2011

Settlement Agreement is a Victory for Threatened Fish and the Walla Walla Roadless Area

Press Release, December 5, 2011

Contact: Jennifer Schwartz, Staff Attorney, 541-963-3950x23 or

Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the U.S. Forest Service reached an agreement, approved in federal court today, that commits the government to determining whether motorized vehicle use along the upper reaches of the Walla Walla River is impairing the recovery of steelhead and bull trout populations, both of which are listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

For decades the Forest Service has allowed off-highway vehicles "OHVs" (motorcycles and in some areas all-terrain vehicles like quads) to use trails adjacent to the North and South Forks of the Walla Walla River. "The Forest Service has expanded the motorized trail network, which now spans over 100 miles, in some of the best, un-roaded fish and wildlife habitat in the region without carefully examining the environmental consequences, including the unauthorized use happening off of established trails" said Jennifer Schwartz, Staff Attorney for the Council. "The Walla Walla River watershed is an ecological stronghold, encompassing crucial winter range for big game, old-growth forest stands, and deeply incised canyons that provide critical aquatic habitat for bull trout and Mid-Columbia River steelhead." Under the agreement, the Forest Service will thoroughly assess the impacts of motorized use in the area and refrain from constructing any additional motorized trails until it complies with the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

The Walla Walla River Roadless Area is surrounded by other large tracts of roadless habitat and the congressionally designated Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness—offering rare opportunities for wide-ranging animals like elk, black bear, cougar, lynx, wolves, and wolverine to travel within a well-connected natural landscape.

The government has recognized since 1972 that OHV use on public lands is “in frequent conflict with wise land and resource management practices, environmental values, and other types of recreational activity.” Executive Order 11644. Today's high-powered motorized vehicles can penetrate deeper into backcountry areas that were previously inaccessible due to technological limitations. OHVs can negatively affect natural resources, from disturbing and displacing wildlife, to trampling native plants, to destroying wet meadows and spreading noxious weeds. This lawsuit focused on OHV impacts to water quality and aquatic habitat through soil rutting, erosion and compaction, the removal of streamside vegetation, and the loss of streambank stability, all of which can lead to increased surface runoff, sedimentation, elevated water temperatures, and the introduction of oil, grease, and other pollutants into public waterbodies.

"Today's agreement marks a critical step toward ensuring the health of our waters, native fish populations, and the biological integrity and quiet enjoyment of our remaining roadless, wild lands," said Schwartz.


Hells Canyon Preservation Council is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Hells Canyon-Wallowa and Blue Mountain ecosystems.

Top photo courtesy of David Mildrexler: depicting damage to wet meadow from unauthorized OHV use emanating from the Walla Walla River motorized trail network.

Bottom photo courtesy of Jennifer Schwartz: depicting unauthorized use by full-size ATVs (quads) alongside South Fork Walla Walla River and within river's floodplain.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Buying Bewilderment

Outside the wind is sharp, snowcold. The last of the deciduous leaves are blowing, swirling, dancing in the wind. Fall is turning now to winter. Watching the wind sculpt leaves into whirlwind shapes, I am thinking of Mystery.

Mystery was the first of the Big Three Essentials Gary Ferguson talked about in his keynote speech at the Fall Gala, and in many ways the hardest, at least for me, to talk about. Somehow it is easier for me to talk about words like Community and Beauty. With all the emphasis HCPC has on bringing the latest and best science to public lands management, Mystery may seem foreign, out of place, belonging to a different world. From my perspective, though, Mystery is at the heart of science.

Mystery is about what we don’t know, what we yet don’t understand. It’s the questions we don’t have the answers to. And it is in questions where science begins. Science doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, and certainly not immutable ones. Science tests hypothesis after hypothesis; gathers information, shakes it all up, and then looks for patterns.

At its best, science does not confuse the descriptions of the patterns we see with the actual reality. Science is content to say “this is our best understanding at this time”. Science lives side by side with the unknown and the unknowable, comfortable within its own limits. Humble even.

Humility seems to be required by both Mystery and Science, along with wonder, amazement, and delight.

I am still amazed that trees breathe in the carbon dioxide that would poison us, and breathe out the oxygen we need. I am still delighted that the chlorophyll in leaves is so similar to the hemoglobin in my blood, one centered around copper, the other centered around iron. I am still struck with wonder that a gigantic tree can grow from such a tiny seed.

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” – Rumi

This quote is what Gary Ferguson chose to wrap up his keynote speech. I think of cleverness not only as the antithesis of bewilderment but also of humility, of that open place where journeys begin.

There’s no need to pretend we have all the answers. We start with where we are, do the best we can with what we know, seek to learn more as science makes available more knowledge, and move forward with this vital work to protect, defend, restore, and love these wild places we call home.

Begin with Mystery, and bewilderment. Be wilder.

- Danae Yurgel