Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Run, Salmon, Run!

The salmon are returning back to Tumwater Falls! Many rivers and streams along the Pacific Northwest have historically suffered much damage to salmon; mostly from water quality issues due to overly intensive logging or dams created for various reasons. However, the Deschutes River in Washington enters the brackish waters of Puget Sound with an imposing waterfall. In 1952, engineers built the salmon a fish ladder to climb past the waterfall. Now, the Chinook Salmon are coming back to spawn, slowly working their way up the rushing river to spawn. Over 10,000 are expected this year!

We also went to visit Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, which is currently involved with a huge earthworks program to allow floodwaters to restore wetland habitat on the delta that was lost to agriculture. Along the river we saw a family of three sea lions swimming up stream! We couldn't walk too far though, since most of the trails were blocked off because of hunting on nearby state land.

While the western Washington weather is getting gloomier by the week, the autumn is still providing nice days. This weekend we explored more of the Columbia River Gorge. This majestic canyon was created about 15 million years ago in the Miocene era, when massive basalt flows poured in from the east. Then, during the past ice age, the massive Missoula Floods carved out the land and essentially created the landscape seen today.

The area has more impressive waterfalls than any other region I've been too, and being so easily accessed from the interstate, many of them, such as 620' high Multnomah Falls are popular attractions. We started our hike by returning to the first place we ever saw in the Cascades: Horsetail Falls. We met a couple coming down from a hike to Rock of Ages, but they had encountered too much snow, in May, at only around 900ft above sea level! Since it sounded interesting, we returned to do the hike.

We hiked up the slope to see Ponytail Falls, which is one of my favorites. It has a cave set into the basalt cliff behind the falls, so you hike behind them. From there, the trail leads up to a bluff overlooking the Gorge and then goes down to Middle Oneonta Falls. Making our way upstream, we encountered the beautiful Triple Falls. Retracing our way back to Ponytail, there is an unmaintained trail leading straight up the ridge. This eventually led me to a huge cliff of lava turned golden in the setting rays of the sun. Along the ridge is an outcrop of basalt that has eroded into a perfect arch, just big enough to stand in and gaze out eastward. It was a tough hike up, but worth it for the exhilaration of being there to watch the shadows stretch across the valley below, eventually reaching across the river to Beacon Rock where we were camped just a month before.

The next day we started out at Oneonta Gorge, which is an unexpected slot canyon. Unfortunately, it begins with a huge log jam slippery with slimy mold that required climbing past. Beyond was a very narrow and high canyon walls covered with mosses and ferns. If it were 10 degrees warmer, I'd think I was in Hawaii instead of the Cascades! We hiked up past Multnomah Falls, where there is an overlook to watch the falls spill down. And then the trail follows the crashing, noisy stream past a few more shorter falls and cascades when Wiesendanger Falls sneaks up on you from around a bend.

Down the road, we made a few more stops for short hikes. We saw the ruins of 92 year old Mist Falls lodge, which is now nothing more than a collection of broken stone walls, pottery, and a robust black stone chimney standing alone in the woods. We saw Wahkeenah Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls, and just when I thought we'd seen them all, the last one was one of the best: Latourell Falls. It's only a mere 250' high, but it has it's own upside-down ampitheatre that reminds Lisa of a madman's pipeorgan petrified in stone. After that last fun hike, it was time to drive home and hit the hot tub for a long soak.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Nothing Gold Can Stay

The difference one week can make is amazing. One week ago, we performed what might be our last burn of the season at Glacial Heritage Preserve. It was about 20 acres in size, but with heavier fuel types, such as logs, snags, and stumps that kept burning long after the grass fire was out. The perimeter of the fire break had a few weak spots too, due to unburned heavy fuels. We wanted to ensure the break stayed secure and patrolled the area frequently, so Lisa, Brian and I camped out overnight. The winds would change several times during the night, and each time the wind shifted, many new fires would flare up inside the burn unit. We still had 2 pumper trucks on site, so we were certainly able to tackle any problems that might get started. When the shifting winds would settle down, smoke would pool around the area like the fog of war.

In the morning, there were still many areas of open flame, but it began raining. We traded our watch for someone to monitor the area, but the rains kept falling for the next 4 days, letting us sleep tight knowing the fire was well doused. Unfortunately, the rains also put a damper in our plans for camping over the weekend. We opted instead for a brisk walk through Tumwater Hill. Lots of the big leaf maples were turning colors, so we collected a few leaves to decorate around our pumpkin, and our walk reminded me of the famous Frost Poem:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

That seemed to be foreshadowing for Wall Street as well. It might seem surprising, but many of the equations used to model both ecological systems and economics are very similar. Concepts such as feedback loops, competitive exclusion, laws of diminishing returns, and others can be applied equally to both disciplines. However, one thing Wall Street does that is not paralleled in nature is having a mass-herd mentality result in jumping off a cliff. The wives-tale of lemmings leaping to their deaths is actually a manufactured myth perpetuated by a Disney film in which the directors forced lemmings to jump to their deaths (and subsequently won an award for best documentary!). Other species can also be forced to jump to their deaths, such as bison being tricked into galloping over cliffs by Plains Indians, but one would think that human investors would not be as foolish (our species name 'sapiens' implies we are wise). Taking a manageable credit crunch and turning it into a negative feedback loop, thereby virtually ensuring a recession, reminds me of an old saying, "argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours".

But don't worry, my fellow earthlings; I have been in jobs where I worry about my entire division being eliminated, or teaching foreigners how to perform my job because they are willing to work cheaper, or automating a process to make it more efficient and require less manpower... but I bet very few of you have had your job threatened by a work force of Goats!!

Yes, you heard (herd?) me correctly, certain aspects of my job can be performed by goats, willing to work for the pure joy of killing weeds. The idea of using livestock as a tool for controlling weeds is not new, and goats are almost like mercenaries in the sense you must control what they are doing at all times, or they might become your worst nightmare. Like many weapons, they are capable of doing much damage to an ecosystem if not carefully deployed, but if used with precision, can be effective and mutually beneficial. In Washington, goats are employed by the Nature Conservancy to tackle dense stands of blackberry thickets. I have also wondered about using them to tackle the marshes on Fort Lewis that have become mono cultures of Reed Canary Grass.

Well, the Winds of Change are nothing new to me, and can be interesting times; like the many unique species of birds now migrating south on these northern fronts. It's a great time to view many birds, such as the majestic sandhill cranes, so I plan to get out and make the most of it. I'm going to miss BirdNote when I leave the Puget Sound, so I'll have to lobby my own Audubon Chapter to make a Southwest version of the show.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hoh Hoh Hoh!

Merry Autumn!

The weather is starting to change over to cooler and wetter conditions here at the Puget Sound and coastal prairies. The few sunny days left are going to be action packed, as we race to treat areas of Reed Canary Grass that we had previously brush-cut along stream beds. Reed Canary Grass forms such a tangled mass in creek bottoms that it prevents salmon and other fishes from being able to swim upstream to spawn, and can even grow to such densities as to lower the water table. It's also very difficult to kill, requiring us to wait about 1 month after cutting to return and spray it with an aquatic-approved herbicide. Fortunately, weeds we've sprayed earlier in the summer look like they are not resprouting, so we seem to be making a difference.

Our prescription fire program is also trying to finish up a few last burns before it becomes too damp to continue, so early next week will be a rush to complete a few last important areas.

For our weekend adventure, Lisa and I went exploring the Hoh River and Rainforest on the west side of the Olympic Mountains. We saw huge, old growth Western Red Cedars, Hemlocks, and Sitka Spruce, and an area in the forest called The Hall of Mosses. Our campsite for the first evening was simply along the river banks in an area manged by the Hoh River Trust. We had the entire river to ourselves, and made a little fire along the gravel bar as Kingfishers would fly past and chatter. During the night, we heard sounds of a large animal rummaging around, but fortunately we are careful with locking away food at night. In the morning, near our campsite, we found fresh bear scat.

The Black Bears are busy this time of year trying to bulk up for the winter, and the nearby Himalayan Black Berry bushes (alas, an exotic invasive weed, but a tasty one!) were providing the bears most of their diet. A full bear is a happy bear, and we were glad to have not let this one sample human camp food and begin associating people with food; bears are very smart, and when they learn that campsites have food, they will keep returning and eventually cause a problem. Unfortunately, the bears get blamed for eating any food lazy campers leave out, and eventually are killed.

The following day, we hiked up the river to where Mount Tom creek flows into the river, and a pretty waterfall cascades down. We saw bald eagles, baby coho salmon, red squirrels, and lots of signs of elk. When we returned to our camp in the National Park, a pair of bull elks began sparring with each other!

On Sunday, we visited several of the coastal beaches and watched the tide roll out. These beaches are much rockier than what I'm used to seeing, and even stranger, have huge masses of driftwood logs piled along the shore. Looking out west into the Pacific Ocean, I was reminded by Lisa about an article in my American Bird Conservancy magazine about death by plastic. Plastic is a wonderful material; extremely durable & lightweight, and cheap to make; but sadly it's inexpensiveness has let society treat it as disposable.

I recall one of my old school friends dad, Dr. Foss, predicting in the early 1980's that since plastic is so durable that it will quickly accumulate if we are not careful how we use it. Sure enough, plastics have accumulated so much that out in the middle of the Pacific floats an island out of trash as big as the state of Texas! Prior to 1990, this area was known as the North Pacific Gyre; a slowly rotating current similar to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic. Now, it is called the Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch amazing only represents about 10% of the total plastic trash in the north Pacific. Seattle had recently passed a law requiring a 20 cent fee charged for disposable bag use to encourage us to reuse bags instead of trashing them. Unfortunately, this plan has stalled. Hopefully, more cities and states will adopt measures to reduce the amount of garbage, especially plastics, which ultimately save much more in the long run; not only in reducing waste, but preserving natural systems like the pacific ocean that provide us food.