Matt Neer: Wide Angle Views of Climate Change

Matt Neer Blog 1Arguably the most pressing issue we face today as a society is climate change. OK, actually it is the the most pressing issue, no argument needed. But before we go rushing off all willy nilly let’s take a quick look at some of the logistics and scope of climate change and its bedmate energy.

When we say “climate change” we are talking about the global climate. Not just the local weather. While local topography and weather can be divided up into micro climates and zones, and many of those will experience the effects of climate change, the problem of climate change is a global problem. A problem that we should attempt  to view as a whole.

How then should we approach climate change and mitigation? First we should examine energy and its role in our lives.Once we have a picture of energy we need to look at the environment and the results of our actions. Then we can look for an area of interest or skill through which we can effect possible change.

Once we have that frame of reference we need to appreciate the role energy, both production and use, has had on human development. As many economists  point out, prior to the Industrial Revolution the standard of living for humanity remained basically unchanged for millennia. Then we started to burn coal in an industrial fashion. With that transition brought lights, heat, cooling, refrigerators, and a myriad of technological developments. These advancements have extended human life, increased comfort and our safety.

The majority of human economics is now centered around the production, distribution, and consumption of energy. In the United States the energy industry employees 500,000 workers and makes up 2.3% of GDP. This comes in at a cool $910 billion industry.

On our journey pedaling through Montana studying energy and climate change we’ve interacted with both environmental organizations and energy providers. One of these providers, Northwestern Energy, services much of Montana, a portion of South Dakota and Nebraska. They employ 1,273 workers in Montana and, in all three states, service 700,000 customers through 27,900 miles of electrical lines and 9,575 miles of natural gas pipelines. We  are used to just pushing a button or flipping a switch. Energy  generation and its surrounding economy are just too big of a portion of the economy to simply alter overnight.

To get there will take years of effort, organization and education. In the Powder River basin in Montana, plans to develop coal reserves that included an entirely new railroad spur have finally, after 40 years, been put to rest. The development of Otter Creek coal and the Tongue River Railroad that would have serviced it were nixed by rapid decline in demand for coal, largely due to cheap natural gas, and staunch opposition from landowners in southeastern Montana. This protects many Northern Cheyenne burial grounds, stops countless tons of CO2 emissions, and protects acres and acres of open pasture land and the water needed for livestock.

An interesting byproduct of this fight has been the building of a community in the Powder River Basin that includes groups that historically have felt at odds. The member-driven Northern Plains Resource Council and organizers such as Alexis Bonogofsky and Mike Scott, over the course of many years, countless meetings (before agencies or over a cup of coffee) brought together ranchers with their desire to protect property rights and maintain grazing and water for their herds, environmentalists, and the Northern Cheyenne to face a common enemy.

North of Billings we find the Charter Ranch. Steve Charter is also a member of NPRC. But he couples his organizational duties with research to look for solution. While fighting to protect his land from undermining on one front, Steve Charter is beginning to experiment with soil betterment in the hope of speeding up plant succession to repair damaged grazing land. That alone is a multifaceted problem he is approaching with composting, vermiculture (worms for us laypeople), and experimental and diverse crops. The end result will hopefully include increased carbon sequestration in the soil, with the  twofold effect of CO2 removal and increased productivity

Whew! Climate change is huge, and we didn’t even look at alternative energy. No wonder so many throw up their hands in despair. But if we take a moment and appreciate the scope we can likely find a niche for all of us to fill. Like a giant buffet that we surly can’t eat all of we can defiantly find a plateful to consume.

Ben Scott: Grazing on the Middle Ground

Ben's Blog 1The clouds shade us as we cross the fence. The swing gate sways in the wind, the mass of wood and jumbled barbed wire is a strange sight in the canyon floor. Splashes of light split the clouds and sprawl across the far canyon walls. Horseshoe Canyon is illuminated in a patchwork of sunlight that pierces the clouds and begins to heat the canyon.

The fence line we have just crossed is the boundary dividing BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and Canyonlands National Park. We enter the southern portion of the park, our march northwards takes us down canyon. As the rest of us finally clamber over the fence we take a slight detour out of the bottom of the wash. We reach the crest of a small hill and gaze out at both sides of the fence line. Our instructor Dave prompts us, “look out at both sides of the fence and tell us the differences you see.” There is a long pause as all our heads swivel from looking up the canyon to back down. We all remain quiet for a long time, and I cannot notice any outstanding differences on either side of the fence. My mind wanders as I gaze at the towering red walls on the far side of the canyon. I notice the occasional junipers littered along the slopes below the cliff faces. Gradually my mind wanders back to Dave’s question, and I begin to notice the vast greens down canyon in the national park. I am not the only one. A couple of us voice our find to Dave. Then the differences come pouring out, the cow tracks on one side of the fence, but not the other. The national park side looks to contain a lot more underbrush and greenery than the BLM side. Dave acknowledges our observations, “This section of Canyonlands stopped grazing a couple decades ago.” The difference in habitat is really noticeable once you finally become aware of it. I watch as a breeze bends the grass heads on one side, while on the other a wave of sand and dust is pushed down the wash. The national park had an amalgam of plant life growing in it, while the BLM side was mainly dominated by scorched shrubs and rock outcroppings. This was my first experience with the effects of grazing on a landscape. Grazing was not something I had ever thought of as having a heavy habitat impact, yet here I stand. One side shows the recovery of the land as it stopped grazing a few decades ago, while the other shows the effects of continuous grazing to this day. Canyonlands National Park only stopped grazing a few decades ago, due to the presence of the Great Gallery, a popular and spectacular rock art panel. What if they had never allowed grazing from the beginning? How lush would it be? Would there be fewer non-native plants? Would the ground cover be different? Instead of walking on terraces that are only covered in sand and rocky shale, would they be covered with grass instead?

We descend down into the wash again and continue our hike down the canyon. As we venture further into the park land we are greeted by a running stream that seeps out of the rock. Along its edge there is an extensive stand of cottonwood trees. They start off in small patches of only a couple trees, and then they erupt out of the ground every couple yards, as they march down along the streambed. The landscape has changed so much, and we have only gone a quarter mile since crossing the fence. Is this what the Native Americans saw when they first came into this canyon? All of this lush foliage sprouts out of the wash, and the slopes of the canyon are filled with green grasses and shrubs. Is this the true face of the canyon? Should the upper canyon that I just walked out of look more like this? Have I been walking through an anthropogenic wasteland till now?

The BLM and the park service are  both under the US Department of Interior, yet the agencies have different directives. BLM manages their land for multiple use, including grazing, recreation, wildlife, mineral extraction, oil and gas development,, timber harvesting, and right of way (roads and power lines). The park service manages our national parks, monuments, and recreation areas. Park Service management is focused more on preserving intact ecosystems, they are charged with preserving lands for the enjoyment of future generations. Now this does not mean that there is no use of the land that the park service manages. Grazing is still allowed on some park lands, as well as other uses, they do not completely “preserve.” Park service land generally aims to be very open to the public, they try to keep sites well-kept and respected, but also often put in infrastructure for access and lodging.

As stated earlier the BLM is required to manage land for multiple use, they have millions of acres under their jurisdiction. The BLM regulates these uses in order to generate revenue and allocate resources. Yet even within these multiple uses that the BLM regulates for there are still debates over which use should be prioritized, and where certain activities should be prohibited. Where do you draw boundaries?

These questions will receive a lot of different answers depending on who you ask. There are a lot of people who believe that there should be more areas that are strictly dedicated to recreation or wildlife. People enjoy hiking, hunting, fishing, and off-roading. They like to use the land for fun and sustenance. When industry comes in and destroys areas that they have previously enjoyed and begin mining, they may get upset. That area will never be what it was to them before the mine, the fracking, or massive logging. People begin to see the after affects like I saw them. They look at the grazed land and the protected land and think “why can’t more land be like that?” On the other hand people see something else entirely. If you look out at a field and think that would make great cow pasture then you would use that open resource. Some look at the park lands that are not grazed and argue as to why we are not using that available resource. I personally really like hamburgers and steaks. Cows need to eat to grow, and grazing is a natural thing that must be done in order to feed the country. If you put out more cows on the land then you raise more meat, you generate more revenue. Why lock up land and keep it out of hands of progress? You cannot use the uranium in the ground if it is on designated wildlife land, you cannot even drive on that plot. What is the point of leaving it locked in the ground when we could use it for ourselves?

I love food. I enjoy steak the most. Coming out on this program is great, but man, all these vegetarian meals could be so much better if we could throw in some bacon bits or chicken. The point is I was astounded by the effects of grazing that I saw down in Horseshoe Canyon, but I also understood why grazing is allowed. But what should have priority in these cases? Should we preserve the land more so that it may retain its natural beauty? Or should we use it for our own gain and enjoy it while it is available? Is it possible to come to a middle ground that would allow for the beauty to shine through while cows graze? Why is it so hard to reach a reasonable compromise? I love the outdoors, and I do not want to see mining operations litter the landscape. I also enjoy video games, and driving my gas guzzling truck. I need oil and I need power. I believe that we can do a better job regulating what we have. Using the land is not a problem to me as long as we do it right, we minimize our impact as much as possible, and we clean up our mess. We have lost a respect for nature that is essential to using our resources sustainably. If we can get that back then I think more people will be willing to use our land in a manner that does not leave it barren after we use it. Even if it means cutting back on our current ways of life.

So far, it seems we don’t know how to use our land respectfully. We destroy ecosystems without a second thought. So why not continue? Why change now?  We could use the resources that are there and enjoy it while it lasts. Or we could completely change. What about going the complete opposite direction and preserve as much as possible? No more industrial expanding. Leave the wild as it is. Or should we go with my personal belief and find the middle ground? Let’s make a compromise.

Katy Hopkins: Quicksand and Other Things that Exist: (A look at past and present cultures on the Colorado Plateau, among other things) Pt. I

Katy Blog 1As a kid, I thought a lot about quicksand. After watching The Princess Bride, I assumed it would be an inevitable problem I would have to address in adulthood. Before coming here, I did not employ any knowledge I’d acquired about how to deal with sinking in quicksand. Turns out, though, quicksand does exist in real life! It exists here on the Colorado Plateau! It’s not in random places, it doesn’t slowly swallow you or get worse if you struggle. It happens to be very different from any cinematic portrayals of it, as things tend to be. But it’s here. It exists in or next to streambeds, and doesn’t get very deep. If you position your weight right, it ripples under your feet. The best way I can explain it is that it’s like walking on jello, but if you stand still it’ll try to eat your feet. Pretty neat stuff.

In addition to quicksand, some other things that exist out here include: a cave with the softest and finest sand I’ve ever touched (think—a mountain of powdered sugar), more snow and rain than anyone anticipated in the desert, pack rat middens (Google these. Just do it.), fossil fuels buried deep in the older layers of the canyon that are hundreds of millions of years old, 22 archeological sites per square mile in the Dirty Devil River Canyon, and (getting to the point) evidence of the complex lives of the people who lived here thousands of years ago.

The Ancient Pueblos, inhabited these lands long before Europeans even realized this continent existed. They were here being born and living and loving and dying before my ancestors were even intelligent enough to correctly measure the circumference of the Earth. This thought has been in my brain since we first saw evidence of their lives here at the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon. Scholars and children alike have speculated the significance of this place. Something I find incredible is that they are all right at once. Without any of these ancient people alive to tell us, there is no way for us to know what exactly that great panel is there for. This means that your guess is as good as mine.

We have also seen granaries and even more artwork by these people while hiking down the Dirty Devil River.  We’ve found their tools—cutting rocks and arrowheads made out of colorful chert. We have found a place where they carved and shaped these. We read about their lifestyles of hunting and gathering transitioning to agriculture. We have imagined their lives, though attempting to comprehend their complexity has proved difficult.

But I think it’s important to ponder these complexities. It is important to imagine these ancient people in such a way that they actually become people. No more or less. Simply a people of a different time, but still humans who felt the spirit of this landscape, just as we have walking through it. These things are important because they connect us. They shape these people, not into the mythical beings they are sometimes imagined as, but as humans just like all of us.

We have been reading chapters out of a book called Resilience Thinking. This type of thinking means exploring all parts of a system, not optimizing one and discounting the rest. Not focusing on attention on a single thing, but rather trying to understand that the world is more complex than we give it credit for. This kind of thinking is necessary when exploring and imagining the lives of ancient peoples. Like I said before, they are humans. This landscape affected them in many of the same ways it affects us. Their thoughts were just as meaningful as ours, as were their beliefs. The way they lived may have been different, but essentially the things that come to matter to us, like the people we love and the places we live, are the same. Resilience thinking allows us to see this and study these people with open minds and open spirits.

Quicksand exists. I know this now. I know that there is sand softer than anything I’ve ever touched. I know how hard it is to walk 10 miles with your life on your back. And I know, in a much more intimate way than I ever could have without coming here, what the lives of these ancient peoples might have been like. And the best part is that they have descendants. And we are about to go meet them. Here we come, Hopi and Navajo nations. I will be blogging about you.

Ella Norris: The Nurture in Nature

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” -Khalil Gibran

Ella Blog 1The intrinsic value of nature is hard to explain, let alone to quantify. It’s much easier to feel, to learn it by experiencing it. This has been my experience traveling through the Colorado Plateau with WRFI over the past 9 weeks.

I’ve always enjoyed being outside, or else I’d be crazy to sign up for this course. In fact, I thought that doing this semester in a tent would help me to satisfy some of my desire for adventure and being outdoors. And I thought it would help connect my love for the outdoors with an academic foundation, to better understand how nature, a thing of great interest to me, ties into the workings of the world.

I thought it would help me to understand some contemporary topics of resource management, of where the issues are and whose fighting over what. I thought it would help me to understand more about land uses, and which direction human development is moving in.

It has done all of those things. I understand a lot about the human-land relationships on the Colorado Plateau, about resource usage, about the natural and cultural history of the area, and a bit about how each of those things ties into economics.

I understand why dams were built, why resources like water and coal are of great economic value, why borders are drawn where they are, and which laws seek to protect while others enable development. These are the instrumental uses of land.

But academics aside, this course has taught me a lesson I will value forever. It has taught me to validate everything else that there is to value in nature beyond its instrumental use. Beyond its monetary value or it energy development potentials or even the number of life forms it may hold. After spending the bulk of the past 9 weeks outside I have become aware of the intrinsic value in nature, the nourishing qualities that it possesses.

I feel so healthy, well fed, as if all of my senses have been being nourished by the sights, textures, sounds, and smells of my surroundings. The colors of the Colorado Plateau are vibrant, astounding- deep red canyons against the green of cottonwood trees and soft blue skies. The Green River is silky and graceful as it meanders through tough rock terrain. Away from the sounds of car motors or door slams or cell phones, there is room even for the sound of little lizard footsteps to carry through the air. There is a smell that comes with each wind gust, often the familiar old scent of dry dust being stirred.

I’ve truly felt the benefits of spending so much time in nature. As an individual my experiences became more vivid, I became more in tune with my thoughts and aware of my senses. And as a group, traveling with my dear classmates and instructors, I feel that our interactions too resonated more deeply. Though our conversations were usually light hearted, they were more real to us than is usually possible between people who had met just weeks before. All of the lessons we learned had more weight to them because they were learned through experience, propelling ourselves through each of the places that we learned about.

We spend a lot of time talking about the instrumental values in nature- water, minerals, plants and animals all playing a major role in the well-being of mankind. But at least as valuable as any of those resources is our ability to experience the world which has evoked all of those valuable things into existence. There can’t be many things as precious to us as our abilities of sight, touch, taste, smell and sound. And why waste those gifts staring at white walls and computer screens or walking on hard cement, when the world outside is full of color and texture far more interesting than those. To forget those things would be like forgetting to eat, it would leave you malnourished and tired.

Sleep is more satisfying after a long day of hiking. Meals taste better when they’re carried for miles on our backs, cooked in the open air, and spiced by hunger by the time you’re eating. It is nice to drink the water that you yourself scoop from a spring or a pothole that you’ve learned to look for as you walk. And to bring it full circle, the great “throne room,” “oval office,” “water closet,” the lavatory of the outdoors provides far more gratification and inspiration than the potpourri and cushy toilet seats of all the luxury bathrooms in the world could offer.

I’ve decided that quality time spent being in nature is foundational to being a human being, at least for me it is. I feel that each moment spent experiencing the natural world is rich and precious. The natural world is intricate and beautiful. It’s the only place perfection might exist. It would be plain out silly for anyone to exclude it from their life. The man-made world cannot compare.

Aly Kellogg: Why Natural History is Relevant!

Aly's Blog_chertIt can seem to the untrained observer that natural history isn’t very relevant in society today. What can a sophisticated urbanite learn from a bunch of plants anyway? Let me tell you, this urbanite has learned a thing or two from them already on this trip. Essential natural history practices can be applied to a realm well outside the backcountry. Vision, attentiveness, and accuracy play key roles in any social system and can improve ones understanding of the world around them.

Attentiveness has taken much energy throughout this trip. At each step there is something requiring observation and thought. An obvious example is the constant quest for beautiful chert – a type of jagged stone whose hues vary from white to red to purple. My eyes scan the ground for a glint of something unusual, something that calls my attention more than the rest of the rubble. I hone in on a particularly purple piece embedded in the fine sand floor. I lift it from where it lays to inspect it closer. Purple upon first glance – yes – but with more time a gradient develops, then a rainbow, then perhaps a pattern. The color and shape and angles become apparent and distinct. I rotate it in my hand to see all sides, trying to imagine the larger piece it used to be part of. Only by training my attention does it become obvious that this piece has been manipulated by a human hand and ancient tool. A bigger picture begins to show.

Vision is trickier to master than attentiveness. Our wonderful instructor Dave poured water onto some seemingly black moss clinging to a rock face. It turned green! By some miracle of nature, the moss immediately opened itself to the moisture. There were no signs that the moss would react that way but if you new that after a fresh rain most of the mosses were green, you could guess that water triggered this reaction. Natural history is seeing the unseen. Take nothing at face value. Make observations and try to hypothesize based on them. It is extremely important both in ecological and sociological systems to ask questions about what is happening outside of the obvious and examine the components that seem stagnant or simple. You never know what answers may lay there. One can use vision to prepare for future changes and see multiple solutions to current problems.

To balance vision, one must practice accuracy. Hypotheses are only as useful as they are true.  By assuming too much, one may make other hypotheses that lack a strong foundation. We were asked to spend two hours with a plant and make speculations based on our thorough observation. I thought my specimen was fairly solitary, standing alone for many yards in any direction. There were a few of its kind on the hill above but I wouldn’t have called it abundant or guessed that it was well adapted to the desert. As I continued to walk down canyon, I saw it everywhere! There hasn’t been a campsite since where I haven’t seen it. The assumptions I made based on the original site did not hold true. This is a perfect example of the necessity of accuracy and the dangers of vision. They need to balance each other.

Attentiveness, vision and accuracy all need to exist in order to come up with clear definition of a problem and to see viable solutions. This is the usefulness of natural history. The same principles that help me make sense of this strange, anything-but-barren landscape can be applied to social systems.

Natalie Stockman: Shadows and Leaves

Natalie blog 1I picked up a branch of leaves and observed the shifting shadows as it spun between my fingers. There I sat, starring at an unassuming desert plant. My three-hour plant study had only begun. As I sat in the scorching sun, I wished the plant could create enough shade to accommodate me. I began my observations by noting the obvious features of the plant. Its leaves were garnished with sharp points on every end and grew out of snarly branches. Dusted winter green colored the leaves, with little evidence of possible flowers. Maybe it was too early to tell. After noting every distinguishable feature, I dissected the stem in order to gather a visual on its circulatory system. I noted the details detectable by my naked eyes. Then I moved to speculate about the location of my plant. It seemed to grow close to the stream bank as well as far up the steep canyon slopes. My plant could withstand direct sunlight and possibly had adapted to only living close to a water source, judging by it proximity to the stream and absence later down canyon where the wash ran dry. I hadn’t done much independent speculation of the natural world before the plant study. I’d grown accustomed to stifling the imagination that nature can inspire. Science books and nature guides were often my first stop before employing my own speculations.

During the plant study activity we were required to creatively express our plant in any way we seemed fit. I thought for a while about whether to write a poem or story. I decided that the words I had might not do it justice. I drew, instead, the shadows projected by one of the branches on to my paper. Every incremental movement, as it spun, created a different complex shadow. I soon began to trace the shadows and attempted to explore the myriad of shapes that appeared. I remember thinking they were oddly geometric as a result of the pointed leaf lobes. Each leaf seemed to shade itself while taking into account its particular position under the desert sun. The challenge of capturing one of these shadows on paper consumed me. Soon enough, three hours had passed.  I followed the small stream back to the head of the canyon to meet the rest of the group.

As we shared our findings, the depth of observation and expression of everyone’s plant study presentation happily surprised me. We engaged our scientific observational skills as well as our expressive techniques. During our discussions in class we talked about the two sides of natural history. The scientific and the interpretative aspects of natural history inform each other. Ella’s plant study offered a great example of this. She named her plant the pillow. She observed the composition of the plant. She speculated about adaptations the plant might posses and the ways it is best suited for its environment. Her creative component especially struck me. She wrote,

In the form of a tiny green bud

Not all of a flower or leaf,

But of a plume softer than fleece.

Its details are pristine

Fit for a fairy queen

Pink and black and white and green

They inspire a pleasant tune

That’s hummed about them by the bees.

She artfully used her scientific inferences to inform her expression. As a member of the audience her poem was memorable and incorporated her personal experience within the plant study. She was not alone in her creative expression; Nate wrote a short story about his plant relating it to a little brother. Aly personified her plant as a grandmother because of its small dusty petals that resembled hair curlers. In each case their close observation informed their interpretation, creating a greater depth to our study of the natural world.

Thomas Fleischner wrote in an article titled, Natural History and the Spiral of Offering, about the complexities of natural history. He suggests that a wholehearted naturalist employs a variety of observation methods to be more receptive and “cultivate awareness.” Fleischner emphasizes how important expression is to the practice of natural history. Ultimately the expressive component allows naturalists to present their experience and findings to their community. Expression is not only important to convey findings but it can also add a degree of humanity to the study of nature, for the people who might not be drawn to the natural world independently. In some circumstances the expressive portion can be crucial for inspiring other people to feed their naturalist spirit or to question their environment. The plant study demonstrated the importance of nurturing a creative lens when practicing natural history, not only to present your work but also to inspire others.

Before the plants study, I wouldn’t have looked at the pillow willow, formally known as the Coyote Willow, and thought of it in the same manner as Ella. Her presentation allowed me to have a connection with the plant as well, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Nonetheless, it has encouraged me to see the natural word with a variety of lenses. Fostering unique personal expressions to nature could have a similar effect on a community as it does on a group of students in a remote canyon.    By inspiring everyone to be a naturalist in there own way, a new widely shared reverence could inspire us to take a second look at the way we treat our environment.