Critical Mass: Strapping it together

13691056_10153740303176463_3640257484084638429_oThis article appeared on Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line blog on July 26, 2018:

If you flip through early issues of the American Whitewater Journal, published quarterly by the nonprofit American Whitewater since its founding in 1954, you’ll discover several things. One is that boaters in the ’50s and ’60s did insane things, like surf canoes on breaking ocean waves or build spray decks out of a couple of ponchos and some branches before paddling canyons previously deemed unrunnable.

Another is that, in the ’60s, American Whitewater (AW) members helped do the field reconnaissance that made the National Wild and Scenic River System possible. AW co-founder Oscar “Oz” Hawksley was among a group of World War II vets who repurposed Army surplus rafts for wilderness exploration. He co-led the first modern descent of the upper Selway in Idaho, one of the rivers that made it into the original Wild and Scenic Rivers Act when it finally passed in 1968. (The expedition ran 6-foot falls in a canoe. Hawksley rowed a raft over water so rough on an unmapped rapid that, in one photo, the only part of him visible above the foam is his hat.)

You’ll also see that though AW has morphed from a loose affiliation of river-lovers to a professional environmental organization, it’s got the same scrappy DNA. At its core, it’s still a bunch of people so devoted to rivers that they’re as willing to throw themselves into plodding bureaucratic processes and decades-long fights as they are to drop into a good whitewater line. More…

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No Happy Ending for the Vaquita

IMG_9809This article originally appeared in Hakai Magazine in November, 2017.

The little porpoise seemed perfect. She had been lifted from the ocean onto a boat, but her breathing and heart rate were regular. She was plump and well over a meter long. She looked old enough and healthy enough to bear young. When Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho joined the veterinarians alongside her around dusk on November 4, he bent to peer into her face. “It was one of the most beautiful sensations of my life,” he remembers. “Finally, I can see those beautiful eyes.”

At last, he thought, he was looking at a glimmer of hope in the otherwise grim future of the vaquita marina—the little cow of the sea—the world’s smallest and rarest cetacean.

Rojas-Bracho, a marine mammal expert at Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, has studied the vaquita since the early 1990s. In that time, the species, found exclusively in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California, has plunged from just under 600 individuals to fewer than 30. They are the unintended victims of fishers setting gill nets for shrimp and other creatures, and of poachers illegally netting a fish called the totoaba for their swim bladder, a product worth thousands of US dollars on the Chinese black market.

Vaquitas are famously elusive and shun the noise of boats. Rojas-Bracho, like others who study them, learned much of what he knows about the vaquita from a great distance, or by examining carcasses found adrift at sea or washed up on the beach.

Now here was a living one, the first adult caught during a desperate, meticulously planned effort to stave off the species’ extinction. More…

The eclipse’s really early birds

This article appeared in The Washington Post on Aug. 18, 2017

Thousands of eclipse oglers eager to secure their viewing spots have been pouring into rural towns on Oregon’s arid east side and craggy coast for days. But some Oregon residents have been preparing for Monday’s total solar eclipse for much, much longer.

Kay Wyatt and her husband, Steven, moved to Depoe Bay, Ore., 15 years ago, in no small part because it lies on the centerline of the path of totality — the 60-mile-wide swath across the country where the moon will completely block the sun on Monday. The Wyatts are geophysicists who traveled the world conducting seismic exploration for oil and natural gas. When they retired, they wanted to live somewhere they could indulge another mutual passion: amateur astronomy.

They took their obsession a step further about four years ago and bought a plot of land near the coast, in Otis — also on the path of totality. They built a summer home and their own observatory, which shelters a telescope in an eight-foot-diameter dome. It’s high enough to get a clear view of the sky, and far enough inland that it’s less likely to be blocked by the fog and clouds that can cling to the coastal cliffs and beaches here even in summer. That’s where they’re planning to watch the eclipse. More…

Lesson’s from the moon’s shadow

How the eclipse makes you understand space, and why we should pay attention to lesser wonders.

IMG_3477This essay originally appeared at hcn.org on Aug. 23, 2017

Most of us who came always knew there could be fog.

Oregon’s coast is a moody place, carved by surf, stormsurge and the Earth’s seismic shivers into sea-stacks and cliffs. Its tree-covered hills are alternately woven through with cloud, or scoured to sun by gusts that sculpt branches into bonsais and stiffen your fingers with chill. Sometimes, though, it is clear and still, as if the world is tasting light for the first time, made new again while you slept. As maybe it always is.

Those of us who came to see the total solar eclipse from the spot where the moon’s shadow would first touch the continent knew this. But we came anyway. We came from Portland. From Washington and Texas. From British Columbia and California and South Carolina. As if to bless our choice, the weekend was sunnier than any I’ve experienced on the coast. But sometime early in the morning on Monday, the day of the eclipse, a thick fog crept in. It obscured the houses across the Siletz River from where I camped in my truck, turned the toppled snags jutting from Siletz Bay into a blurred jumble of old bones. More…

Life After Timber

What’s a community to do when outside forces and ecological realities threaten the very industry on which it’s built?

IMG_8488This story originally appeared in BioGraphic on Dec. 20, 2016

On a chilly September morning, Bob Christensen stopped his battered SUV outside an annex belonging to the local tribal government, the Hoonah Indian Association, picked up Donovan Smith and Phillip Sharclane outside, and headed for the woods. Thirty minutes later, the three were scrambling through a steep scrub of young trees on a slope overlooking the sea that rings Chichagof Island, in the archipelago that forms Alaska’s southeastern spur.

Dressed in rainbibs against the region’s ever-present moisture, Smith called out plant names as he scrutinized the ground. The list sounded almost like a poem: Beard lichen, bunchberry, oak fern. Christensen, who carried a fat revolver in case of any run-ins with brown bears, scribbled on a clipboard. “I’m the oldest and the laziest,” he joked,” so I do data entry.”

Sharclane paused at each young tree, his hand appearing from the leafy tangle to mark his own height against its trunk, then each foot past, his fingers flat as if in salute. “Growing up, I really would have rather ran through the woods than load them up on a ship,” the 38-year-old said. “There’s nothing better than being out here and getting paid for it.” More…

BLM moves away from landmark Northwest Forest Plan

This piece appeared in the July 26, 2016 print edition of High Country News.

Crunching across a brushy, logged-over slope near Corvallis, Oregon, Reed Wilson points his trekking pole at an ancient Douglas fir in a neighboring patch of forest. The tree is more than an armspan in diameter, its toes decorated with saprophytic orchids and millipedes.

One of 117 behemoths among these otherwise young stands, this tree and 38 others also wear necklaces of pink tape. Tree-climbing citizen surveyors left them to mark the presence of red tree vole nests, explains Wilson, a gray-haired local jeweler and activist. The tiny rodents devour conifer needles and use the hair-like resin ducts to build pillowy abodes in the trees’ branches. Most vole business takes place high in the canopy — interlaced limbs offering access to other trees, food, mates and new homes. The vole is also favored prey for the threatened northern spotted owl, and its population here in the low-slung northern Coast Range is a candidate for endangered species protection.

The federal government set aside this area as part of a 10-million-acre network of reserves in western Oregon, Washington and Northern California, largely to protect species like spotted owls and voles whose old-growth habitat was being destroyed by logging. In 2009, though, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a commercial project to thin younger trees here, ostensibly to restore more diverse forest structure. And though the Benton Forest Coalition, to which Wilson belongs, and two other environmental groups forced the agency to leave intact forest around most of the vole trees, several stand alone amid logging slash, their tiny tenants marooned and more vulnerable to predation. “This was native forest,” regenerating from a 1931 wildfire, Wilson says. “It hadn’t been logged before.” More…

Meet the group that’s turning artists into nature’s advocates

This piece appeared in the print edition of High Country News June 27, 2016.

Hard rain has driven the small crew down from their camp at an alpine lake to a roadside national forest picnic area. The spot’s pleasant, even under a late-May storm: Oregon’s Clackamas and Collawash rivers meet here, and conifers and the fluorescent whorls of horsetails overhang the clear green water. Amy Harwood — all in black with an Army-drab beanie and a long braid over one shoulder — crouches by a metal fire pit, knifing kindling from a wedge of wood. Four others, all artists, stand around her. Despite sweaters and jackets, everyone looks chilled.

“Are there rippling muscles in there yet?” asks Harwood’s partner, Ryan Pierce, pointing at my notebook. The flames falter in the wet ash. Harwood blows them back to life as Pierce narrates my hypothetical story: “ ‘It seemed like fire sprouted from their fingers … or from their rippling muscles,’ ” he says gravely. “ ‘Julie made a bird call and we were suddenly surrounded by finches.'”

It makes for an unusual staff meeting, but then this is an unusual group. Signal Fire, which Pierce and Harwood co-founded, runs public-lands-based backcountry trips and residencies for artists and art students. More…