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Archive for May, 2012

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods

There is a rapture in the lonely shore

There is a society where none intrudes

I love not the man less, but nature more

 

Lord Byron Manfred – London – 1817

A path through the woods in Redwoods Purisima Open Space – Santa Cruz Mountains, California

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Redwood Purisima Open Space – California – 6 miles

A recent business trip took me to Silicone Valley and I was able to get a nice 6-mile evening hike in after work one day.  Just up the winding roads from my hotel was the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains where numerous open space preserves offer many wonderful trails.

Of all the open space areas in the area I chose the one with the name “redwoods” in it.  Sometimes I miss the big tree country of the Northwest (used to live in Seattle).  So, I was excited about a hike among giants again.

The Bay Area is a land of micro-climates.  If it’s foggy where you are, chances are you can find bright sunshine just a few miles down the road.  This unique climate is a big part of what makes it such a stunningly beautiful area at times.

About that fog, a collegue told me something I didn’t know about the great Redwood Tree.  The flat needles of the Redwood are specifically adapted for foggy environments, soaking up moisture from the fog.  The moisture condenses and then drips down through the canopy eventually to the forest floor for the shallow roots of the Redwood to drink up.  The ingenuity of nature can be surprising.

The Redwood Purisima open space is just over 4,000 acres and covers a chunk of the west slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Through the middle, runs little Purisima Creek and it’s lush rugged little canyon.  Throughout the preserve are those Redwoods–not quite the behemoths, but some are in the range of 5 or 6 feet in diameter.

The lush canyon floor of Purisima Creek

My hike started on the high side and took me on a wide trail down, down and down some more, until I finally reached the creek.  The descent was 1,400 feet which was a bit more than I was figuring.  The trail then followed the creek for another 1.5 miles or so, crossing back and forth.  The environment was lush and cool, whith the Redwoods standing over a forest floor of ferns and wildflowers.

I turned around about 3 miles in and my workout began as I climbed back up that 1,400 feet back to the trailhead.  I stopped frequently to look up to the high branches of those redwoods standing over me.  Reaching the trailhead I felt invigorated by my nature reboot.

Below are some pictures of the unique wildlife I encountered here.

A friendly salamander let me take its picture

The infamous banana slug–one of many encountered on the trail. Watch your step!

A wierd two-inch long millipede thing

An elegant solitary blue flower

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Let’s take a look at a bill introduced last year (2011) that has not had a vote yet, but should be known to wilderness advocates:  HR 1581 – Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act.

First, some background that will help frame the bill: 

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

In 1976 the Bureau of Land Management inventoried millions of acres of land they designated as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs).  Since then these lands have been managed (or are supposed to have been managed) as “de-facto wilderness” in anticipation that, some day, they may become wilderness areas.  In fact, some of these areas have become official Wilderness Areas since then.  Today, 12.7 million acres are still identified as part of Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) mostly in the U.S. West.

Click here to learn more about the BLM WSAs

National Forest Service

In 1967 the National Forest Service began a nationwide inventory of “roadless areas” that could be suitable for full Wilderness Area status.  This effort was called RARE (Roadless Area Review and Evaluation).  RARE counted 56 million acres suitable for wilderness status, but was abandoned after court challenges alleged that the Forest Service did not comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).  The effort was repeated in 1977 with RARE II which resulted in a recommendation of 15 million acres as wilderness with another 10.8 million for further study.  This study, too, met courtroom challenges and was abandoned.

Meanwhile, from the 1960’s through today, advocacy groups and their congressional and presidential supporters steadily added millions and millions of acres of roadless land to the wilderness preservation system outside of the BLM WSA and Forest Service RARE I and RARE II processes.

But, there are still millions of acres of pristine roadless land that could, and in most cases probably should, be designated for full wilderness protection.

In 2001 the Forest Service created the Roadless Rule which set strict limits on road building activities in most of the remaining inventoried roadless areas still awaiting wilderness designation.  The scope of the Roadless Rule was narrowly focused to halt new road building, but not to restrict anti-wilderness-like uses of these areas (such as motorized use).

Click here to see our National Forest inventory of roadless lands

Now for the proposed bill:

The two main parts of the bill mirror the two agencies primarily involved in the inventory of roadless lands, the BLM and Forest Service.

Not all of the Wilderness Study Areas of the BLM have been identified by the BLM as being suitable for wilderness designation.  These supposed “non-suitable” lands are the areas that the bill proposes to release from the protections of “de-facto wilderness” for other uses.  If they are released from WSA status then the BLM will be free to managed these areas any way they deem necessary which may or may not have land conservation as a priority.

As with the BLM, not all Forest Service roadless lands are considered by the Forest Service to be suitable for wilderness designation.  Like the BLM lands, the bill proposes to release these lands from “de-facto wilderness” management to be used for wider purposes.  Given the inconsistent history of the Forest Service that would put these lands at risk for a multitude of exploitative purposes.

The amount of land proposed to be released for potential exploitation is hard to determine, but it seems to be in the tens of millions of acres.

Many BLM WSAs are smaller in size than they should be.  For example, the two Grape Creek WSAs in Colorado amount to 22,000 acres.  But, Colorado’s Canyonlands Wilderness Proposal advocates more than 40,000 acres for wilderness designation for the beautiful Grape Creek Watershed.  The point here is that the BLM may have used more restrictive or limiting criteria in selecting the extent of land to designate as WSA.  And, if that’s the case, why should we trust the BLM’s judgement alone?  We can extend the same concern to the Forest Service.

I take a view that some may find extreme and it goes like this:  At least 80% of all remaining unprotected National Forest and BLM land not currently roaded should be given full wilderness protection.  Mountain bikers, dirt bikers, snowmobilers and ATV users can continue to use the vast matrix of forest service and BLM dirt roads that, obviously, are in non-roadless areas.  This still leaves up to 20% of these roadless lands for less restrictive designations that would allow motorized use.  These activities are fun and enjoyable–I partake in them myself.  But, they are inherently suited for use in roaded areas.  Special efforts can be made to take pieces of land within roaded areas (in the margins between the roads) and create networks of trails for use by these vehicles (in addition to the roads that access them).  The basis for my position on this is that I believe all roadless land is good wilderness land.  To me wilderness does not have to be especially scenic.  It just has to be wild and remote.  I also believe that as a society and nation we need to voluntarily set a limit to our geographic overbuilding of nature.  Extensive wilderness lands make our existence richer.  And, for those who disagree, well, we’ve already placed networks of rural roads over a much larger territory than all the remaining wilderness and roadless land.

So, not only do I say “no” to HR 1581, I say accelerate the designation of 80% or more of these areas to full wilderness.

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I’m against HR 4089, but environmental groups are stretching the truth.

As I’ve been browsing around the internet looking at conservation and wilderness advocacy websites, I keep coming across mentionings of this bill that just passed in the House of Representatives:  H.R. 4089 – The Sportsmen’s Heritage Act of 2012.

Many conservation advocacy groups and people are saying that this bill could undermine the entire wilderness preservation system by opening protected wilderness and roadless areas to motorized access and even extractive enterprises (oil and gas, logging, mining, etc…).

Naturally, alarm bells began ringing in my head… Oh no! This is terrible!  This can’t happen!  My mind was swimming in rage!

But, then I began to think a little more logically about this.  This is in the realm of politics afterall.  And, by the time most of us learn of a political matter, we can be assured that the spin doctors (conservation groups included) have spun the matter into whatever narrative they want to spin it into.  The bill is, in fact, supported by the NRA.  The NRA!  My God, anything supported by the NRA must be immediately opposed by any liberal group.  And, then, of course, there are other groups who seem to be in support of this bill precisely because of the interpretation that it will weaken wilderness protection laws.  These are the groups who think wilderness “locks away” access to too much of our public lands.  I think that is a ridiculous argument given the fact that wilderness protection keeps these lands attractive for public use in the first place, and because there are still vast areas where motorized access to public lands is allowed.  And, that would still be the case even if we doubled our current protected wilderness acreage.

In regards to the bill the truth of the matter, as we often say in political debates, is “probably somewhere in the middle.” Unfortunately, it is that middle truth that is always lost behind the smoke screens of deception when it comes to politicized matters.

I finally decided with regret that, if I’m going to be able to see through the smoke screens of political spin I was going to have to read this bill myself (boring!!).

But, I did it, and here is my take on it:

It’s not really dangerous to our current wilderness preservation system.  But, boy is it ever pointless!  Actually, it’s not entirely pointless.  Reading between the lines, I see it as an effort by certain “sportsmens interests” to prod federal land management agencies into a more active management approach to ensure access to and support of hunting, fishing and recreational shooting.

It’s this “access” word that seems to have environmental groups up in arms.  They seem to be interpreting this as the first nudge in a door opening to destroy the wilderness system as we know it.  Although I am fully and completely on the side of wilderness preservation, and more of it than we currently have today… I just don’t see that threat in this particular bill.

Here’s the section that is of greatest concern to environmental groups:

SEC. 104. RECREATIONAL FISHING, HUNTING, AND SHOOTING.

(a)    In General- Subject to valid existing rights and subsection

(b)   (g), and cooperation with the respective State and fish and wildlife agency, Federal public land management officials shall exercise their authority under existing law, including provisions regarding land use planning, to facilitate use of and access to Federal public lands, including Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, or lands administratively classified as wilderness eligible or suitable and primitive or semi-primitive areas, for fishing, sport hunting, and recreational shooting.

I added the bolded underlined part.  Existing law here would include the Wilderness Act of 1964 among many other existing land management laws on the books not related to wilderness protection.  Okay, so this by itself makes me a little nervous.  It does leave a little too much up for interpretation.  But, a few paragraphs later in the bill we find the following:

(1) MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS FOR ADMINISTRATION- The provision of opportunities for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting, and the conservation of fish and wildlife to provide sustainable use recreational opportunities on designated wilderness areas on Federal public lands shall constitute measures necessary to meet the minimum requirements for the administration of the wilderness area.

(2) The term ‘within and supplemental to’ Wilderness purposes in section 4(a) of Public Law 88-577, means that any requirements imposed by that Act shall be implemented only insofar as they do not prevent Federal public land management officials and State fish and wildlife officials from carrying out their wildlife conservation responsibilities or providing recreational opportunities on the Federal public lands subject to a wilderness designation.

(3) Paragraphs (1) and (2) are not intended to authorize or facilitate commodity development, use, or extraction, or motorized recreational access or use.

Again, the bold and underline was my emphasis.  Maybe I’m missing something, but it certainly does not seem to me that this bill really puts the continued protection of our wilderness system at risk under the current wilderness laws.  In fact, it specifically states that the bill does not intend to authorize either extractive industries or motorized access and use.

I suspect that some of the opposition to this bill may have more to do with an underlying tension between the different types of wilderness users.  “Sportsmen” and “environmentalists” are not always cut from the same cloth.  This was comically apparent one day when I was backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range with two climbers from Boulder.  They were very much the “no campfire” types who have probably never caste a line before much less fired a rifle.  We came upon a grizzly old horsepacking bow hunter on the trail.  Trail etiquette establishes the expectation of a friendly exchange, but I couldn’t help but be amused by the contrast between these two groups.  My friend was fascinated with this man’s boy scout style canteen as if it was a relic from the nineteenth century.  The horsepacker, with his handlebar mustache and wool hat looked upon us backpackers as if we were a different species.  We just don’t relate that much.  Away from the politeness of the wilderness trail, there is a tension and antagonism at times between these groups.  There are lefties who absolutely hate hunters and all that they stand for, even though the vast majority of hunters love the wilderness and its preservation.  Hunting also serves an important purpose now because of our past removal of predator species.  It is managed and controlled, and taking an animal by rifle is no more cruel (probably less cruel) than the killing of that same animal by a predator.  On the other hand, there are hunters and “sportsmen” types who can’t stand the “loony toons” in the wilderness and their percieved cosmic experience kumbaya self-righteousness.

I digress on this because I happen to be one of those individuals who uses our wildernesses in the margin between uber euro backpacker and leathery handlebar mustache “sportsmen.” I have caste a few lines for trout and fired a few firearms (although I’m not a hunter).  I’ve also sipped water from a hydro pack and practiced lightweight backpacking with ultra-liberal Boulderites.  Maybe that perspective allows me to see a little more clearly that our wilderness system can accommodate both extremes and everything in between as long as we all understand and respect the rules that help preserve the natural qualities that ensure our wilderness areas maintain their wilderness characteristics.  And, the vast majority of us, even hunters, do understand.  It’s the wildland that draws us all there.

Back to the bill.  After reading it, I have come to the conclusion that this bill is about a solution looking for a problem.  When it comes to wilderness use and management there doesn’t seem to be any real change of substance created by the bill.  It seems to be a preemptive effort by “sportsmens” interests to ensure that the federal agencies overseeing public lands continue to prioritize hunting, fishing and shooting as legal and legitimate uses of public land.  Opening the door for ATV use, or even oil and gas extraction, in our wilderness areas?  I just don’t see it in this bill based on my reading of it.

But, I do have three legitimate concerns about the bill:

1.)  Unprotected roadless lands.  There are roadless areas in our country that deserve and need wilderness protection.  It is these lands that are at risk to changing policies at the whim of a forest manager or politician.  This is where I think the environmental groups should focus their opposition rather than on making misleading statements about our current Wilderness Areas being at risk.  A bill that prods forest and land managers to favor more “access” without changing current laws may not impact designated wilderness, but it may result in more lenient access and use rules for those wilderness lands that are not yet protected specifically as legal Wilderness Areas.

2.)  Recreational shooting.  I’m not against recreational shooting on public land in places that are appropriate for it.  In the wilderness areas, this seems inappropriate to me.  The occasional hunter’s rifle shot in the wilderness is not a big deal.  But a barrage of continued firing from a makeshift firing range would be very disruptive to the wilderness experience not to mention stressful to the wildlife.  I don’t think our federal agencies overseeing protected wilderness lands should be actively setting up, promoting and managing outdoor shooting range areas within our wilderness areas.  However, I don’t see this happening very often even if this is allowed (and it is arguably already allowed today under current laws).  It’s just not practical.  And, on some of our BLM lands, even BLM Wilderness Study Areas, there is no need for a designated shooting area.  Just go and shoot in a safe area where there is no one else likely to be around.

On the issue of lead bullets:  I do find it concerning that the bill seems to modify Section 3(2)(B) of the Toxic Substances Control Act.  I haven’t taken the time to review that amendment, but some wildlife advocacy groups are making the claim that the bill is removing EPA authority to ban lead ammunition.  Based on the exaggerations I observed from these groups about other parts of the bill, I’m skeptical that this section results in substantial changes to what is currently on the books, but I could be wrong.  For the record, I think lead ammunition for the purpose of hunting should be banned.

3.) Most concerning to me is the last provision of this bill which states the following:

SEC. 601. DESIGNATION OF AND RESTRICTIONS ON NATIONAL MONUMENTS.

(a) Designation- No national monument designated by presidential proclamation shall be valid until the Governor and the legislature of each State within the boundaries of the proposed national monument have approved of such designation.

(b) Restrictions- The Secretary of the Interior shall not implement any restrictions on the public use of a national monument until the expiration of an appropriate review period (determined by the Secretary of the Interior) providing for public input.

Normally, I favor congressional due process in government and disfavor too much power in the Executive.  But, there are cases where congressional process is too inefficient, too slow, or too ineffectual.  One such case is in the establishment of land protection.  The President, today, under Section 2 of the Antiquities Act of 1906, has independent authority to:

Sec. 2. That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected: Provided, That when such objects are situated upon a tract covered by a bona fied unperfected claim or held in private ownership, the tract, or so much thereof as may be necessary for the proper care and management of the object, may be relinquished to the Government, and the Secretary of the Interior is hereby authorized to accept the relinquishment of such tracts in behalf of the Government of the United States.

It is precisely because of this Executive power that we have some of our most treasured natural protected places, such as the Grand Canyon, which was originally designated by Executive order as a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt made wide use of these powers and arguably set the stage for future conservationist actions such as the Wilderness Act of 1964.

To me, this is the most disturbing aspect of H.R. 4089 because it makes one of the more powerful and useful methods for land protection ineffective.  For this reason and for the lesser reason that the rest of the bill is largely pointless, I’m against it and hope that it is either defeated in the Senate or Vetoed by the President.

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This short Wilderness Society Video offers some very good explanations for why the wilderness preservation system is so important.  The video is also available on their website.

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The Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign has active congressional sponsors in Jared Polis (House) and Mark Udall (Senate).  As this proposal progresses in the halls of Congress, it is being officially referred to as the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act.

I’ve been loosely following this campaign for the last year or so.  The proponents of this proposal have worked out a number of compromises with local interests over the years.  As a result the original size of the proposal has been halved.  Still, it represents a fairly significant potential addition to protected wilderness lands in the crucial Central Colorado tourist belt.

These areas are seeing substantial pressure as development and population growth continues near some of Colorado’s most well-known ski resorts and mountain towns (like Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen).  It is essential these areas receive protection now to keep them wild while we have the chance.

Here’s an article on this from the Vail Daily.

Here’s a map of some of the proposed wilderness additions in Central Colorado.

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South Boulder Creek near the lower crossing on the Walker Ranch Loop Trail

It was near 90 degrees the last two days, but now it was a cool 60 outside my house.  Looking out to the Front Range from my living room windows, the Indian Peaks were already shrouded behind rain and the weather didn’t look promising.  What the hell?  I went anyway.

On a warm early March day I hiked just the first mile or so of the Walker Ranch Loop trail until the way was blocked by feet of snow just on the far side of South Boulder Creek.  Now, two months later, I went back to complete the 7.6 mile route.  This time there was a lot less snow, a few more people, and ironically, it was about 20 degrees cooler.

I stepped out of the car at the trailhead at Boulder County’s Walker Ranch Open Space into a cool breeze and looked up to the canopy of white-gray clouds draped over the landscape.  Would the rain hold out?  Doubtful.  I double-checked that I packed my blue raincoat and off I went.

The Walker Ranch Loop Trailhead starts at a high point.  If you take it counter-clockwise like I did, the first mile drops a few hundred feet down to South Boulder Creek.  In March the water in the creek was low and quiet, but it was much higher and noisier now during our early spring runoff.

The footbridge across South Boulder Creek in early March

The same footbridge in early May with a swollen S. Boulder Creek flowing underneath

Past the bridge, the trail immediately begins the first of two significant climbs on the route.  A few hundred feet higher and a mile and a half farther in, you reach the edge of the Gross Dam Road.  A few hundred feet beyond that, the trail emerges into an open area at the Eldorado Canyon State Park access to the loop (about a mile of the trail is in Eldorado Canyon State Park.  The rest is in the Walker Ranch Boulder County Open Space).

Still no rain, the cool weather made for pleasant hiking along a stretch of high open range.

Looking out over the green hills near the Eldorado Canyon access point.

Soon the trail begins the second descent back towards South Boulder Creek as it gradually curves towards the east.  At about 4 miles in the trail navigates a short but extremely steep section that takes the hiker down to the river.  Some very expertly constructed steps have been put in place here.

Looking down the stair steps just above the lower crossing point of South Boulder Creek

By now the silence of the upper trail has been replaced by the rush of South Boulder Creek.  At this lower crossing in high water, South Boulder Creek is a riot of white water and white noise echoeing throughout the canyon.

The churning waters of South Boulder Creek from the trail at the lower crossing point.

A very large and sturdy wooden footbridge crosses the rapids of the creek.  Here the second ascent begins.  Also here, the rain finally arrived in earnest.  It had been a pleasent sprinkle for the previous two miles.  But, it finally intensified to the point where I needed to break out the raincoat.

The route briefly follows a graded road here before branching off to the left at near the six-mile point and commencing on a fairly strenuous climb up to the ridge south of the trailhead.  Also near this point are some of the remains of the old Walker Ranch Homestead.

Walking through the rain I saw a sullen-looking solitary turkey waddle across the trail and disappear into the brush.

Before too long the ridge was reached and misty views of the surrounding foothills emerged from the wet darkness of the forest.

The nice ridge over the final mile or so.

I always prefer nice sunny days for hiking and backpacking.  But, I find a certain different kind of enjoyment hiking in the rain.  The moisture and restricted visibility tend to bring nature closer in to the senses.  The enhanced feeling of “being in the elements” increases a sense of wildness.

I strolled happily along on the final mile, over the gentle ups and downs of the ridge back to the trailhead.  As I approached the trailhead, a happy pair of mountain bluebirds skimmed just over the grass and wildflowers of the meadow.

By the time my hike ended the rain intensified and the air felt quite cool–cool enough to see my breath.  A couple miles up the road on the drive home, near the top of Flagstaff Hill, the rain turned to a thick snowfall.  My car told me it was 36 degrees outside.  It was almost 90 at my house the day before…

Springtime in Colorado, I guess.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

* The Walker Ranch is a 3,500 acre parcel of the extensive Boulder County Open Space System located in, near and around the city of Boulder, Colorado.  Access is just a few miles up the hill from Boulder. *

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