Sunday, August 18, 2019

Light on the Devils: Coming of Age on the Klamath

Light on the Devils pulled me in and made me want to know more about the people and places it described.

After reading Louise Wagenknecht's book, I searched aerial photos to track her family's moves from Hilt, California, downriver to Happy Camp, and then to Seiad Valley during the 1960s. I wondered where her high school classmates committed suicide, died in vehicles rolling off mountain roads, gave birth between junior and senior years, and dropped out to work in the timber.

Then I searched topographic maps for the Three Devils peaks of the book's title. I traced the path of the Klamath River through the forests of northern California, where Wagenknecht's stepfather laid out clear cuts in old growth timber. I looked for the roads and bridges built to "get out the cut"—infrastructure the cut didn't pay for. I planned a road trip to see how the clear cuts were filling in and search for remaining old growth trees.

Between the crescendos of tragedy—floods, fires, and logger deaths—Wagenknecht records the steady bass beat of disappearing old growth timber and degraded watersheds and wildlife habitat. At the height of the post-World War II timber boom, a neighbor remembers California condors and Wagenknecht's family moves into a house with a large supply of kindling: veneer peeled from old growth pine.

But I didn't need a guide to follow Wagenknecht's journey from science geek kid who loved animals, through her dismay and disbelief when her stepfather tells her women can't be veterinarians and his co-worker tells her women can't fight fires—after she had just fought one, and on to her decision to attend college. She saw the contradictions in growing up female and told the world, and herself, that she wanted to be a science teacher—a nice, acceptable job for a high school valedictorian.

At home, Wagenknecht's stepfather decreed she would spend time doing her hair and nails, plus three agonizing hours a week holding up the walls and reading album covers at high school dances. But she, the oldest child, was also his hunting and fishing companion. She was the one who helped him fell trees for firewood and then split, load, and unload the fuel. She made a good hand and he made a good teacher. Despite their conflicts at home, they reached détente in the woods.

This book describes Wagenknecht's path toward a career with the Forest Service—which included fighting fires—and her détente in the woods with society.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Hunting the ancient agave

Agaves spend much of their lives as toothy, spikey plants we avoid while hiking. Most agaves bloom only once, throwing their heart and carbohydrates into raising an exorbitant stalk of fragrant flowers that ripen into dry fruits stacked with flat, black seeds. We're captivated by the transformation from spikey to florescent.

Wendy Hodgson makes agave seeds fly in Cascabel.
However, for over 8,000 years, people have harvested agaves just before flowering, usurping the carbohydrates in the stem for human food and beverage. The leaves also provide fibers for rope, baskets, bags and sandals.

Although people have used agaves continuously in Mexico, the plants' cultivation and culture faded from what is now Arizona by the 16th century. Residents of the Middle San Pedro Valley have periodically wondered if we could grow agave in our area. After all, Sobaipuri Native American agave fields dot our community, and wild agaves grow in the valley.

When this question came up again last winter, we learned that survivors of pre-Columbian cultivated agave had recently been found in our area. Wendy Hodgson and her colleague Andrew Salywon, both with the Desert Botanical Garden, named the new species Agave sanpedroensis. Wendy and Andrew even suggested that this low-water-use crop could be revived to diversify agriculture and stimulate new industries in the U.S. Southwest.

Agave sanpedroensis.
We contacted Wendy, who was as eager as we were to connect. In January 2019, she told a packed Cascabel Community Center about the eight (and counting) species of formerly cultivated agaves she and her colleagues have found. In February, dozens of people braved blustery weather on a follow-up field trip. Wendy explained how she recognizes the different species of agaves and outlined how we can help her survey the plants in our valley.

Wendy and Andrew work with archaeologists, who have documented extensive agave fields at many sites in central and southern Arizona. Rows of rocks along contour lines slowed runoff across the fields and rock mulch piles reduced evaporation. Near the fields, archaeologists find knives used for removing leaves and roasting pits where agave stems, or "heads," were baked to sweetness.

The plants we see today are genetically identical to those the Sobaipuri and other groups developed to suit their needs. Unlike their wild relatives, these cultivated agaves produce little or no seed. Instead, the plants reproduce vegetatively, usually by pupping, to produce offspring identical to the parent. Cultivated agaves are also sweeter than their wild relatives and their leaves are easier to cut.

After surviving drought, insects, and rodents for centuries--or millennia--climate change and development threaten these rare plants. As cultivated crops, they fall into a protection gap: the Endangered Species Act protects only wild species and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act protects only inanimate artifacts.

Wendy fears that these recently discovered, living storehouses of information on people, culture, and plants could be lost. She is helping residents of the Middle San Pedro Valley learn about the ancient agaves in their area and work to protect them.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

You can help agaves and bats in southern Arizona

Step outdoors on a warm southern Arizona night and you might be swept up in what naturalist Ralph Waldt calls a "bat tornado" of winged mammals. Residents routinely wake to find that the clouds of bats have drained their hummingbird feeders overnight.

Although nectar-feeding bats are most noticeable in the area, only two of the 30 bats native to Arizona feed from flowers; most Arizona bats eat insects. Both nectar-feeders, Choeronycteris mexicana (Mexican long-tongued bat) and Leptonycteris yerbabuenae (lesser long-nosed bat), visit Cascabel during warm months.
World-wide, the more than 1,300 bat species represent almost a fourth of the over 5,400 mammals. Bats have the agility to catch and eat prodigious amounts of night-flying insects and to pollinate night-blooming flowers atop tall agave stalks and columnar cacti.

Agaves and cacti provide bats a nectar meal in exchange for pollen the bats inadvertently carry among plants. The bats move with the blooms, from southern Mexico in winter to the grasslands of northern Mexico and the southern U.S. in summer.

This elegant partnership evolved over millions of years and is crucial to the survival of both partners. Currently, bats and agaves are both threatened by climate change and the loss of agaves to land clearing, development, and the harvest of wild agave for bacanora, the agave liquor of Sonora.

The lesser long-nosed bat is the more imperiled of the two nectar feeders in this area. Although this bat was removed from the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018, these pollinators are still at risk due to the decline of their nectar sources.

The Borderlands Restoration Network (BRN), in Patagonia, Arizona, works with many partners to protect bats by increasing their agave food supply. You can help both agaves and bats by participating in two of these projects.

BRN and volunteers track the effects of climate change on two native agaves in our area through the USA National Phenology Network's Flowers for Bats campaign. Many plants are blooming earlier as our climate warms. If bats migrate from Mexico on their usual schedule, but Agave parryi and Agave palmeri bloom earlier, the bats might arrive to find nothing to eat.

BRN replants agaves lost from the southwest U.S. and northwestern Mexico as part of Bat Conservation International's Agaves for Bats campaign. Each year, BRN collects agave pups and seed to grow thousands of agaves for planting by landowners.

If you haven't experienced a bat tornado, keep your hummingbird feeders full for the night shift, watch when agaves flower in your area, and plant some agaves at your place. Then step outdoors on a warm southern Arizona night and wait for the whirlwind.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

An Entomological Who Dunnit

Jeff Lockwood's book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier is available on Amazon, where I reviewed it.

Scientific understanding usually shuffles along in the two-to-three-year steps of graduate student research projects. Big, intriguing mysteries take longer to resolve, but are more fun to research—and more interesting to read about.

Jeff Lockwood tackled the mystery of why the Rocky Mountain locust went extinct at the dawn of the 20th century. The species' periodic irruptions rivaled the bison in terms of biomass and the 1875 outbreak still horrifies young readers of Laura Ingles Wilder's, On the Banks of Plum Creek. Then the insects disappeared.

In his book, Lockwood recounts the challenges of sleuthing out a big mystery. Big research projects require new research techniques and years of soul-crushing data collection. Papers describing new research findings are sometimes rejected by academic journals; colleagues sometimes snicker. Unearthing the Rocky Mountain locust's secrets required field work at remote high elevation "grasshopper glaciers" reached by difficult climbs in foul weather.

Big research projects need lots of brains and lots of backs. Lockwood doesn't hog the limelight; he credits his employees, students, and colleagues for their inventions and insights. Field research is carried out by people, so it's a social activity, which Lockwood captures. A twenty-five-mile hike, completed in the dark, isn't quite as bad when you're not suffering alone, and joy shared at discovery is joy multiplied.

Other ecological changes in the late 19th century might have been linked with the locust's disappearance: decline of the bison, changes in climate, or reduced burning by Native Americans. Lockwood guides readers through the possibilities and explains why he rejects each. He focuses instead on the ecological bottleneck of limited egg-laying sites in valleys of the northern Rocky Mountains. Lockwood determines that when settlers plowed and grazed these areas, they destroyed the locust's eggs, and with them, the species. The culprit was settlers, in valleys, with plows, by accident.

Although the Rocky Mountain locust's sky-filling swarms are gone with the thundering bison herds, Lockwood ends his book by wondering if a few individuals may live incognito in less disturbed valleys of the Rockies. Another big, intriguing mystery.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Marathon health, lava stroke, and natural resources

Mike Medberry's book, On the Dark Side of the Moon is available on Amazon, where I recently reviewed it.

Mike Medberry's legs carried him uphill to finish a half marathon the day before a clot in the 44-year-old's brain stopped blood flow, immobilizing his right side and scrambling his speech. His was the kind of stroke you want to have in the ER parking lot. But Medberry was hiking across lava at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. He spent most of a day waiting to be found and whisked to a hospital.

Medberry "became pure observer" while wounded and waiting on the lava. He describes the stroke clearly enough that I don't have to experience one myself to feel I have a working knowledge of the condition.

Recovering, Medberry learned to brush his teeth, drive, navigate phone trees, speak, and write. His struggles to organize his thoughts are heart-breaking. "…[T]he pieces of [his] brain were a blizzard of blowing pages ripped from a book." Medberry's emotional struggles are inspiring. His falling in love and recovering enough to say, "I do," are triumphs.

Interwoven with Medberry's own story is the story of Craters of the Moon. He was working to expand the national monument when the stroke found him there. Even after the stroke, he hiked and found peace on the lava.

I enjoyed Medberry's descriptions of Idaho landscapes, but I wondered about a few points in his discussion of cheatgrass. He's correct that the exotic annual grass fuels wildfires that damage native vegetation and the wildlife habitat it provides. But I cringed when I read that cheatgrass is "[a] poison brought here by cowboys, for cows." In its native range, cheatgrass is an insignificant grass that doesn't inspire purposeful sharing. Researchers understand that the grass was inadvertently introduced to the U.S. West.

The stark black and white cover photo of a hiker leaning against gravity to climb lava echoes the contrast between Medberry's marathon health and lava stroke. Natural resource issues are rarely as clear cut and the actors, both people and plants, are rarely completely good or evil.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Hawley Creek fish habitat work, Lemhi Valley

Chinook salmon by the thousands used to leave the Pacific Ocean to struggle 800 miles up the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon rivers. Where the Continental Divide blocked their way, they hung a left and swam up the Lemhi River and its tributaries to spawn. Spawning fish jammed the waterways. Their thrashing and splashing kept the human residents of the valley away at night.
The Lemhi River south of Salmon, Idaho, in summer.
Europeans settlers changed the waterways of the Lemhi Valley. They rerouted tributary streams and the mainstem Lemhi to irrigate the hay fields that grow winter feed for cattle. Returning salmon found earthen dams and dry river bed blocking their way. Young fish, starting their trip to the ocean, found the same.
Angus cattle in the Lemhi Valley.
Bruce Mulkey, a rancher and chair of the Lemhi Soil Conservation District sounded the alarm in the 1980s. He urged the group (now the Lemhi Soil and Water Conservation District) to do what they could to help salmon. I wrote about ranchers saving Salmon's salmon for Hakai Magazine last fall.
The Lemhi River north of Leadore, Idaho, in fall.
Today, the LSWCD works with federal and state agencies and private landowners to return streams to their original channels and reconnect them to the mainstem Lemhi. The groups install more efficient irrigation structures and systems, which leave more water in the streams for fish.

In June, 2018, the LSWCD hosted a tour of improvements on Hawley Creek, near Leadore, Idaho. This tributary of the upper Lemhi has been returned to its original channel, after being diverted to a ditch, which left the creek bed dry for more than a century.
The LSWCD tour started where Hawley Creek enters the Lemhi Valley.
A new structure on upper Hawley Creek sends irrigation water through a pipeline to center pivot irrigation systems in the Lemhi Valley. The new pipeline loses less water during the trip than the open ditch it replaced. The pipeline delivers water directly to the center pivots, saving thousands of dollars per year formerly spent to pump water out of the ditch and onto the hay fields.
Paddle wheels power rotating drum fish screens to keep salmon out of the pipeline--and fields.
Center pivot irrigation uses less water and is far less work than flood irrigation, the former method. Flood irrigation required hours of hand work—hands with shovels in them. Ranchers also find that hay crops grow more evenly and that yields are higher with center pivots.

The pipeline and center pivot systems take less water out of the creek than the systems they replaced. This leave more water in Hawley Creek, which now adds more water to the Lemhi River.

Cumulatively, improvements on tributaries and the mainstem river have greatly increased flows in the Lemhi system. The reconnected waterways provide spawning sites for chinook salmon, steelhead, and resident trout, and nursery areas for young fish. The numbers of native fish in the Lemhi Valley are steadily increasing.
Sack lunches; come and get 'em.

Trampled grass at Homo spaiens feeding area.

The Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program (USBWP) is installing beaver dam analogs (BDAs) in Hawley Creek, where it flows across the broad Lemhi Valley toward the mainstem river. These post and stick structures create pools that provide excellent fish habitat. Young cottonwoods trees are protected inside wire cages.
USBWP manager, Daniel Bertram, describes beaver dam analogs (BDAs) on Hawley Creek.
The last tour stop overlooked lower Hawley Creek where it has been returned to its original, winding channel. Willows trees still lined the original channel when the work started. Skilled backhoe drivers scooped up each willow, moved it out of the way, and replanted it after excavating work was done in the redesigned channel.  Light-colored gravel now fills the straight ditch, through which Hawley Creek used to flow.
Replanted willows line the original--and current--channel of lower Hawley Creek. 
Leadore rancher, Merrill Beyeler, listed five or six local families that are being supported by work on the numerous fish habitat projects in the Lemhi Valley. These families are able to stay in the Lemhi Valley and raise their children here.
Rancher Merrill Beyeler shares his local knowledge.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Uber drivers and long hours: Did NPR miss the bigger story?

Uber drivers can spend up to 14, or even 20, hours a day on the road. A recent NPR story highlighted the safety risks of the long hours. The story blamed Uber’s variable pricing and pay, which make it hard for drivers to know how much they’ll make in a shift.

As alarming as NPR’s report was, the financial reality for Uber drivers might be even worse than described. The figures presented suggest Uber drivers could make more asking McDonalds’ diners if they want fries with their burger.

NPR followed a Muncie, Indiana Uber driver on a Friday night. Driver Kyle Reninger prefers working weekend nights, when surge fares are most likely. These “nuggets of the Uber gold rush,” as the story called them, are the higher prices, and higher pay, that kick in when demand is high and supply low.

The story mentioned only the number and level of surge fares as sources of variability in Uber drivers’ earnings. The story overlooked variations in wait time between fares, distance to pick up fares, the value of each fare, and the size of tips. These are largely random. Drivers can't control where their next customer will be or where they'll want to go.

Random events hold the possibility of unexpected rewards. The uncertainty of a random reward is more addictive than the certainty of a known payment. Maybe the next customer will be just a block away, maybe they’ll want a ride to the next state, and maybe they’ll tip with a fistful of $100 bills. It could happen!

At the end of his shift Reninger had been in his car, either delivering a customer, waiting for a customer, or driving around looking for one, for 14 hours and 9 minutes. He drove 401.2 miles and made $165.30 from Uber. With tips, he “nearly hit his goal of $200.” That was “nearly” $200 before expenses.

The story noted the figures didn’t include the cost of gas, but it also overlooked other vehicle expenses. Every mile a car is driven moves it closer to maintenance, repair, and replacement costs. The IRS calculates that operating a vehicle costs 53.5 cents/mile. This means that Reninger's 401.2 miles cost him $214.64—more than he earned.

Uber drivers should be able to deduct business mileage expenses. Reninger and his wife make and sell vegan baked goods; perhaps his Uber driving losses offset bakery earnings. But is the hefty time investment worth it?

Did NPR wait for an unlucky driver on an unusually slow day? I can’t tell. If NPR's figures are correct, Uber drivers make appallingly little. Why do people choose to drive when they could make more at a minimum wage job? Reninger said, “If you don't enjoy doing it, then what's the point, really?” Does he drive for Uber as a hobby? To get out of the house and meet people?

I wonder the hope that the next customer will be the big one, the meter-busting fare with the outlandish tip, keeps Uber drivers in their cars hour after hour. The company seems to have plugged into our love of uncertainty and dream of hitting it rich. It’s the same dream that keeps poor people buying more lottery tickets than the affluent. But the fact is, buying lottery tickets keeps poor people poor.