Swimming against the current

A few years back, after listening to noontime chatter from the local Oregon PBS affiliate and a political scientist they keep on retainer, I emailed him this note. He’s quite good at what he does, but everything gets filtered through a political lens, naturally enough. It is after all, who he is.

The one I caught that day got under my skin. Judge James Redden has been a force here in the Northwest. The money made from the dams has built a juggernaut of an economic engine, mirrored by a powerful political machine that protects it. That engine was called to account by Redden for its management of the Columbia River System, management that had largely written off natural fish runs for the sake of power generation and the multi-millions of dollars it makes.

First some background and a few definitions. Anadromous fish populations go up rivers to breed, and out to the ocean to feed. Catadromous fish populations reverse that pattern. They go out to the ocean to breed and up the rivers to feed. Why that happens touches on a crucial point. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the temperate ocean and its up-welling nutrient flows, driven by currents and heat gradients, provides a much richer food base for migrating fish than the tropical ocean does.

Not surprisingly, tropical rivers are by contrast much richer than those in the temperate zone. That’s especially true here on the Northwest coast of North America. Those rivers usually emerge from mountain headwaters and streams that are quite barren. They have, after all, only recently come in from the cold. We’ve had friends who, after visiting the Oregon Coast, were sad to report how dirty the ocean was. They had to be reassured that the brown soup they’d seen was the stuff of legend – the legend of Pacific salmon that is.

Anadromy catapults the physics of the thing into pure magic. The fish are open living systems. They’re able to take and make enough energy to run against the tidal wash from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. They are “pockets of self-organization” delivering the riches of those ocean waters to streams badly in need of a little love.

Ecological science has gradually come to pervade mainstream thought and Redden’s opinions reflect that. That, and a little balance. The native peoples of this part of the world were never asked how they felt about losing their very identity, the ocean gift that was celebrated, eaten, bartered, stored, worshipped… a promise made good year after year. There was certainly no cost-benefit analysis done to find out how many billions of dollars would be lost forever to that native trade and from the loss of that nutrient re-distribution dynamism. Redress is the operative term here.

There are not many guarantees in this life, but the salmon and their anadromous brethren are certainly one of them. That alone makes them damn near invaluable.

Forest for the ages

I worked in air quality, water quality, range, wildlife and forestry with the U.S. EPA, and the U.S Forest Service. I did that in Nevada and eastern Oregon for over 30 years. Over that period, it was natural to develop an abiding love for the island forests and woodlands of the interior. and a deep interest in their development since the last glaciation. There can be few places more welcoming on a blistering summer day than under the sun-filtered canopy of an old-growth Ponderosa pine forest, and nothing more sublimely elegant.

Old-growth Ponderosa pine

Old-growth Ponderosa pine

How did they get here and how are they doing? They’ve been around a long time, and there should be more big ones that there are. That’s too bad since the plate-like bark, half a foot thick and often outlined in a mosaic pattern of fire-hardened scars – is nearly impervious to any but the largest blazes. Properly managed, these old-growth forests are the best hedge we have against wildfire in this widespread ecosystem. Even in death, the searing heat they’ve experienced over their 300-500 year life-span can seal the trunks off from rot for the next 80-100 years. They are then resurrected as crucial habitat for all the cavity nesting animals. Those creatures can, in turn, play an important role in kick-starting the next forest stand.

I’ve come to feel that, with climate modification a growing planetary concern, the interior western forests offer a crucial reservoir of genetic diversity. If there’s any hope of coping with the changes which might result from a catastrophic shift in the climate regime, it resides in the gene pool of communities like these dryland forests.

Ponderosa Pine (Pinus Ponderosa) defines the margin of many interior forests in the western United States. It’s the most drought tolerant giant conifer in North America. The Lost Forest Research Natural Area, Central OregonPaleobotanists examining the fossil record have found evidence that, in the recent past, forests of Ponderosa have existed in many different configurations. Plant associations which have no current analogs can be found in that record, an indication that “Range shifts occurred that could not have been predicted …” and that these shifts “…apparently led to anomalous species associations”

The implications of this research are of major importance. They offer up some hope of coping with the changes in the variation of seasonal precipitation and temperature which will result from broadscale climate modifications.

That’s because, from the fossil evidence mentioned above, we now know that the genes of these forest types represent a large reservoir of unexpressed diversity. This diversity provides a crucial hedge against climate change. It allows drought tolerant Ponderosa pine forests to adapt quickly to altered conditions. That’s happened many times in the past, that’s what this evidence tells us.

Unfortunately, this diversity has gone unacknowledged resulting in the failure of silvicultural theory on both public and private lands in the West. Foresters chose to “liquidate” stands of old-growth Ponderosa Pine in favor of what they promised would be faster growing stands of other conifers. The idea was to make more money off these new forests. But this attempt at forcing moderate to low-elevation sites to produce as if they were industrial forest plantations has failed. Insects, well-adapted to that same variation in climatic forcing, re-worked overstocked stands of drought-intolerant species, just as if there’d been a change in the climate.

The message is clear: at the forest margin, trees other than Ponderosa pine are a minor component, so Ponderosa is what should be there. But since they are slow-growing many of these stands cannot be economically cropped now or in the future. Selective cutting, with its much lower rate-of-return, should be the only way we remove trees from these forests. The fact is, these pine forests are much more valuable for their water, forage, recreation and soil stabilization potential than as poorly managed quasi-industrial croplands.

We need to to insure the health of these forests. In their genes they carry a message from a long-distant past, one that may help us find our way in a very uncertain future.

Hikers in old-growth Ponderosa pine, Flagstaff, AZ ~1900.

Hiking in old-growth Ponderosa pine, Flagstaff, AZ, ~1900

Running on climate time

I recently had a chance to watch a video recorded as part of the series on Adapting to Climate Change a course for land managers developed by the US Forest Service and it’s excellent. It brought to mind an article I wrote years ago, in 1994 to be exact though it wasn’t published till 1997 in the Fall issue of the late great Wild Earth.

It was inspired by the work that was done coring the Greenland ice sheet, a real eye opener for me. During the last glaciation the planet would regularly transition from an average temperature that’s a few degrees warmer than now to a few degrees cooler in as little as 10, and maybe fewer, years. You can get a hint of these gyrations from the chart shown below:

Temperature proxy from ice cores

Temperature proxy from ice cores for the last 140,000 years (Wikipedia).

That’s an almost incomprehensible shift in the planet’s energy budget and it would have had a dramatic effect on the climate and the vegetation everywhere. This has huge implications for everything we think we know about forest, grassland, and desert ecosystems in the West. Yet those implications have, to this day, barely been discussed.

Here’s one of them: the gene pool of our western conifers has to contain the necessary diversity to deal with rapid climate change and we need to incorporate that into our thinking. That’s not an excuse for doing nothing. The potential social impact alone is enormous. It’s simply a statement of fact.

Take Ponderosa pine as one example. In the Southwest it has such a tightly bound relationship with Abert’s squirrel, that the only thing that critter sleeps in is pine-needle beds, and just about the only thing it eats are Ponderosa pine seeds. When I mentioned this years ago to a British geneticist, he said that probably represented at least 10 million years of co-evolution. If Ponderosa’s been a part of the Western ecosystem that long, the species has surely been through dozens and dozens of episodes of rapid climate change. It’s still around (and it’s also fast on its metaphorical feet as evidence has shown) so it has the diversity to make it thorough those rapid shifts.

At the same time as the results were coming in from the ice-sheet corings, we were just coming out of a spruce budworm outbreak in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. The forests were making a remarkable recovery after that episode. But the reaction to the 8+ year outbreak was very revealing. It seemed to induce a form of insanity in otherwise intelligent people. The budworm was imbued with demonic powers, a satanic force out to do us in. This wasn’t science as I thought I new it. The only people who made any sense at the time were entomologists such as Boyd Wickman. He and the others in his research unit kept saying that outbreaks have a way of ending quite quickly, and that the forest can recover just as quickly when it does. Their voices were subdued and rational, and just about completely drowned out by calls to log everything in sight.

I’m a mathematician by training and it smacked of the sort of perjorative language that discipline was riven with before “negative” and “imaginary” numbers were put on a solid footing. It’s also the same sort of language I heard used about one of the most versatile hardwood species in the world, red alder, when I first moved to the NW in the late 70s. “Professional” foresters called it a weed and insisted it had to be poisoned out of existence. Later I found out that it had such a tightly-bound relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria that it might as well be a legume. It’s so valuable for rehabilitating logged over lands that it gets star billing in this amazing book, one of only two species (Neem is the other) that has more than a single page entry. That told me all I wanted to know. Forestry, at least at that time (1978), was certainly not a science and it seemed to me barely an art.

So I wrote the article in reaction to the coring of the ice-sheet, and the evidence I could see on my own at the end of the budworm outbreak. It started as a letter to a good friend, then later I expanded it as a piece for Wild Earth.

My own opinion is that the budworm and its host species are so tightly intertwined that they’re really not seperable when I think of the ecosystem. That’s even more true for the mountain pine beetle and Lodgepole pine. The current beetle 17+ million hectare outbreak, draped like a multi-colored cloak across the mountain forests of Alberta and British Columbia in Canada, is a very dramatic example of the phenomenon I outlined in my article: a false climate signal brought on by years of fire supression that leads to an eventual rebalancing of the system. In the case of Lodgepole, that’s probably exacerbated by real climate change driving the ecosystem the other way, northward along the Rocky Mountains.

These ideas now seem to be gaining currency and that’s long overdue.

And further to the South…

So where else should we look for climatic analogs to the ecosystems of the Western US? Head north, from Antarctica into the Pacific, staying close to the South American coast. To the east, the Andes rise out of Tierra del Fuego, building a very effective barrier to moisture for thousands of  kilometers. Since the earth mirrors the atmospheric circulation on both sides of the equator, this means that the pattern of vegetation – from rainforest, to chapparal, to desert and then into the tropics in North America – repeats in reverse to the South. After the tropical belt comes the Atacama desert, then the Chilean Mattoral, and then the Valdivian rainforest, a twin to its North American counterpart in Cascadia.

Compounding the eerie similarity is the geology. Just as in Cascadia, a subduction zone lies off the coast of Chile, with the Nazca plate diving under the South American, periodically firing off massive earthquakes as it does. Jammed under the earth’s crust as they are, both plates send enormous plumes of melted rock to the surface where they express themselves as chains of spectacular volcanoes, one each for the Americas North and South.

Head to the lee side, and the drop out of the Andes takes you through the transition zone of dry forests and prairies. It’s no great surprise that Ponderosa pine, the iconic forest tree of the interior West, finds a home on degraded range in those borderlands. Travel further and you’re in the Patagonian steppe, indistinguishable to the untrained eye from the Great Basin.

Central Asia as Surrogate

Years ago, at the Forestry and Range Lab where I worked, we hosted Alexander Isaev, then Forest Minister of the old Soviet Union. He’d been appointed to the position because, as he told me through his interpreter, he’d “complained so much that Gorbachev said ‘you take the job’”. The very first thing I’d questioned him about was his impression of traveling through Oregon. He’d just flown in from the other side of the Cascades the previous evening. That thin strip of well-watered forest usually draws all the attention from visitors, especially the lush temperate rain-forest in the coastal mountains. A world-away from the dry interior, it edges its way southward along the Pacific Coast down from British Columbia, finally tapering to a width of of no more than a few miles populated by redwood stragglers tucked away on isolated mountain peaks and in the hidden canyons fingering into Mediterranean California. I was expecting he’d reflect on that world. Instead he paused for a few seconds and looked up and away, into his past it seems. When he woke that morning and looked out his window, he thought of his first posting as a young forester, to Samarkand.

That’s a clue, and a good one. Much of Central Asia has a similar climate to the American West. I remember eagerly leafing through Heinrich Walter’s Climate Diagram World Atlas many years ago (some of which have now found their way online), quickly locating analogs to the climate of the region we’d moved to in Northeast Oregon. These analogs included places like Van, Turkey and Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The difference is that such a vast place has been host to any number of nomadic tribes roaming from Europe to Asia and back, a human wave of aggregate demand on the land that was just as vast in its effects. We’ve all heard the stories of ransack, rape, and pillage. Notice that those are all human-centered observations. What usually gets lost in the telling is the ecological history of the Eurasian landmass.

Any number of  dramatic mountains and highlands  should, and at one time did, host thickly forested montane ecosystems. Some, such as the Anatolian plateau, the Lebanon, and anti-Lebanon ranges, and the Zagros mountains have been deprived of most of their forest cover.  Too often that has meant the soil that held them in place and nourished them has vanished as well. First the superstructure of trees that ameliorated the above-ground climate and tempered the erosive force of water was removed. Then the substrate that acted not just as a physical prop, but which hosted the nutrients needed to feed the trees, and likely the micro-organisms needed to produce future forest stands as well, was carried off by wind and water.

Other mountain systems have been subjected to an ever-retreating treeline which has pushed those ecosystems further and further up their heights. The Caucasus, the Tien-Shan, and other spectacular ranges have seen their share of human activity and the impact has been significant.


What makes the American West different? My guess is the length of time it’s been subject to dense human settlement and the serendipitous arrival of those settlers when fuel sources other than wood were just becoming available.

There are at least a few parts of the world that have similar climate patterns and vegetation, though the very size of the ecosystem in Western North America insures that there won’t be many worldwide. The mountain blocks that divide wet from dry, or at the very least semi-arid from arid, stretch from British Columbia down through much of Mexico with only a few gaps in between. The coast  mountains of BC, the Cascade mountains in the Northwestern United States, the Sierra Nevada down through California extending southward to the coastal ranges of California, and the massive Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico all cut the interior off from Pacific storm systems that might otherwise provide moisture to the drylands. At it’s widest extent, crest to crest from Mt. Whitney to the Front Range in Colorado, the dry gap is easily 900 miles across while north to south, it encompasses a few thousand miles at the very least

To get an idea of how extensive it is, we can use a proxy. Ponderosa Pine is just such a stand-in. It’s a species that conveniently fringes the dry interior of the western continent, separating the xeric domain from the wetter ecosystems that lead up to the adjacent high country, if any.

As befits good tree-people, the U. S. Forest Service, in the person of E. L. Little, Jr, lovingly built up an atlas of maps showing the geographic range of all the species in the United States. That was in the 1970′s. I picked up my copy of Volume I years ago at a yard sale. The cover was a bit charred from fire, appropriately enough. Otherwise the volume was completely intact and in very good condition including the delicate transparent overlays threaded through with solid isopleths for rainfall, temperature, and other important environmental variables. These overlays chart the chromosomal DNA for our North American landscapes! The range maps in their entirety have been digitized and are available on the Internet courtesy of the USGS at the above link. If you care about such things it’s easy to lose yourself at the site for hours.

Climate diagrams are a great way to draw a bead on similar climatic patterns. These patterns largely determine the ecophysiology of a place and the kind of vegetation that can grow there. Places with comparable climate often host similar plant communities, communities that have developed on convergent evolutionary pathways. The look of these communities can be startling in their visual coincidence, even when those communities are composed of different genera. For example, the Ethiopian desert hosts a community with euphorbia, aloe, and acacia that looks for all the world like Sonoran Arizona, with its cactus, yucca, and mesquite.

The Interior West of North America

So blame it on the Range Rider. It was a western from Gene Autry’s then brand-new stable of television shows, starring Jock Mahoney. It was forgettable with two caveats.

The first has to do with the fact the the Rider would often end up a bloody pulp about halfway through the show. Even as a 9 year-old I realized there was something odd about plot lines that led to the invetiable ass-kicking before the just as inevitable end-of-script redemption. It wasn’t till later that I learned the word sado-masochist and what it meant and that Mahoney may have been some sort of stand-in for kinky wish-casting.

The second has stayed with me longer. It’s the locations where the show was filmed. As a kid growing up in New England I got the same yearning that infected everyone who came within eye-shot of those now iconic  images, the deep gorges and the slot canyons, the mesas and distant mountain ranges, the open desert plains and the grasslands. It’s an amazing thing, the way those Western landscapes became part of everyone’s mental map almost overnight. A lot of us who grew up reading that map have always felt the romantic pull of these places. Less than a hundred years ago, that map didn’t exist unless you lived in that country.

Along came John Ford and the other western movie-makers with their TV brethren. Those images were the virus and broadcast television the vector, one that quickly spread the meme of the West and its red-rock country far and wide. It’s long since gone global.