Monthly Archives: March 2011

A chance to get involved in managing the California Desert

[BLM Press Release]

BLM Seeks Nominees for California Desert Advisory Council

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) California Desert District is soliciting nominations from the public for six members of its California Desert District Advisory Council to serve a three-year term.  The council’s 15 members provide advice and recommendations to the BLM on the management of 11 million acres (17 thousand square miles) of public lands in eight counties of Southern California.

The council meets in formal session three to four times each year in various locations throughout the California Desert District. Council members serve without compensation.  Members serve three-year terms and may be nominated for reappointment for an additional three-year term.  The secretary selects council nominees consistent with the requirements of Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which require nominees appointed to the council be balanced in terms of points of view and representative of the various interests concerned with the management of the public lands within the area for which the council is established.

Nominations will be accepted through May 9, 2011. The three-year term would begin immediately upon confirmation by the secretary.  The six positions to be filled include one representative of recreation groups or organizations, one representative of non-renewable energy groups or organizations, one representative of wildlife groups or organizations, and three representatives of the public-at-large (including one elected official).

Any group or individual may nominate a qualified person based upon education, training, and knowledge of the BLM, the California Desert, and the issues involving BLM-administered public lands throughout Southern California.  Qualified individuals also may nominate themselves.  The nomination form is on the Desert Advisory Council webpage:  Nominations must include letters of support.

Advisory Council members are appointed by the secretary, and will be evaluated based on their education, training, and knowledge of the BLM, the California Desert District, and the issues involving BLM-administered public lands.  The Obama Administration prohibits individuals who are currently federally registered lobbyists to serve on any FACA and non-FACA boards, committees, or councils.

Nominations should be sent to Teresa A. Raml, District Manager, BLM California Desert District, 22835 Calle San Juan De Los Lagos, Moreno Valley, CA 92553.  For further information, please contact David Briery, BLM California Desert District External Affairs, (951) 697-5220 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Ivanpah solar site may hold 140 tortoises

Funny thing. As soon as The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal refers dismissively to the Ivanpah solar site’s tortoise population as being “around 25,” the BLM ups the ante a little.

To 140 tortoises. A hundred forty tortoises on a bit less than four thousand acres.

I wonder if we can look forward to essays of equivalent numerical accuracy by Madrigal about all nine United States, the Two Amendments to the US Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights, or the one and a half planets in the Solar System.

Anyway. More constructively, some quotes from people who actually matter, as reported in David Danelski’s piece linked above:

Before construction started, Fish and Wildlife biologists estimated that the BrightSource site was home to 32 adult and 35 juvenile tortoises. The estimates were based on the 17 animals found in company-commissioned surveys conducted there in 2007 and 2008.

BrightSource contended in public hearings that the Ivanpah Valley was poor tortoise habitat.

Lois Grunwald, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the agency’s estimates were based on the best information available at the time.

Some environmentalists were skeptical, however. They said the higher tortoise population shows that environmental reviews done for the project were flawed, in part because the project was fast-tracked so it could qualify for hundreds of millions in federal stimulus dollars.

Sid Silliman, a Desert Tortoise Council board member, said the new estimates are not surprising. The council is a nonprofit organization of scientists and others who work to protect tortoises and their habitat.

“Our expectation was that a large number of tortoises would be affected,” Silliman said. “That is just excellent habitat.”

Some of the best tortoise habitat in the Mojave, in fact. Too bad that didn’t matter to the large groups who could have stopped the project.

What happens now? The BLM and Fish and Wildlife are meeting to figure out how to let BrightSource move more tortoises:

Just how the new estimate will affect BrightSource Energy’s $2 billion project is unclear. A spokesman for the Oakland-based company said the higher number of tortoises won’t change the project’s scope or construction schedule.


Fish and Wildlife has until Aug. 7 to issue a new “biological opinion” that will set limits on how many tortoises may be moved from the site. The opinion also must determine whether moving the tortoises jeopardizes the survival of the species.

There were ten times as many tortoises in the desert when I was born as there are now. There’s a good chance that by the time I die, there won’t be any left. Interesting that pushing the tortoise closer to extinction is seen as a reasonable path, but the idea that maybe we accept a diminished supply of electricity – perhaps even a scheduled outage or two per week – is anathema, unthinkable, completely out of the question. Mention the possibility of not being able to leave the closet light on, and you get accused, as in some of the comments on Madrigals’ hack job,  of wanting the human race to go extinct. The actual extinctions are unremarkable. Funny, that.

Conservatives respect property unless it doesn’t belong to them

[Update: it’s gone now. Amazing how much it bothered me that Zeke’s image was featured on that pile of mendacity they call a website.]

A guest poster at Anthony Watts’ harebrained climate denial site didn’t even ask permission before stealing Carl’s painting of myself and Zeke and the sloth.

My annoyance is only slightly tempered by amusement at the poster’s assertion that Joshua trees are cacti. Who knew the alleged existence of monocots was part of the Anthropogenic Global Warming conspiracy?

Environmentalism without the environment: Madrigal in The Atlantic

If you know anything about the desert at all, you won’t get very far into Alexis Madrigal’s recent Atlantic Monthly piece on solar in the Mojave before things start to feel not quite right.

It took me one sentence.

The first one.

There are 25 or so desert tortoises crawling around a four thousand-acre patch of the Mojave Desert known as the Ivanpah Valley.

The Ivanpah Valley is a trifle bigger than 4,000 acres. It’s actually a hair under 200,000 acres. Just the critical habitat within the Ivanpah Valley for the desert tortoise — of which there are a lot more than 25, by the way — runs at 80,000 acres.

So he misstated the size of the valley by a factor of fifty. Mistakes happen. And, I say to myself, I bet I know how this mistake was made: the 4,000-acre figure refers to the approximate size of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, which project Madrigal is discussing. I can understand an error like that. I’ve written for an inexpert editor or two in my time, and had sentences simplified to the point where they were completely wrong. This error might very well, I thought, be the fault of The Atlantic Monthly’s editors rather than Madrigal, who likely submitted a more accurate sentence to have it chopped down by the blue pencils.

And then I found out that Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. There went that theory.

In any event, even if the beginning sentence had specified a 4,000-acre patch of the Mojave in — rather than “known as” — the Ivanpah Valley, Madrigal would still be wrong. Even BrightSource, the developers of the Ivanpah solar project, projected there would be more than 25 torts found on the site, and they were surprised at how many were actually found in the first weeks of construction. There were 36 tortoises expected on the whole site, and workers came close to finding that many just putting up a fence around the first third of it. Biologists started speculating there might be fifty to a hundred tortoises on the whole 4,000 acres. Here Madrigal wasn’t off by two orders of magnitude the way he was on the size of the Ivanpah Valley, but it’s a significant mistake nonetheless, and easily avoided.

We’re one 22-word sentence into Madrigal’s piece, and I’ve spent almost four hundred words explaining what’s wrong with it. Given that the full piece runs to more than 3,300 words — and is at that only an excerpt of an upcoming book — the prospect of trying to tease some sense out of Madrigal’s writing is daunting.

And there are indeed a lot of similar weird statements of non-fact. Madrigal says, in a discussion of opposition to Ivanpah:

Ivanpah is a bellweather [sic], then, and environmental groups in California, battle-hardened by years of fighting power plants, were quick to organize to critique the project and position themselves for a protracted public and legal struggle. The arena for this intra-green battle is the California Energy Commission’s power plant siting process.

This is flat out wrong. The major groups’ approach to Ivanpah’s developers was one of conciliation and negotiation. The only people “quick to organize to critique” Ivanpah and “position themselves for a protracted public and legal struggle” were a very few people — Kevin Emmerich and Laura Cunningham at Basin and Range Watch and Sid Silliman with the San Gorgonio Chapter of the Sierra Club being essentially the entire opposition for about the first eighteen months. The three of them deserve our gratitude for that. In the months before the bulldozers came on site there were several other grassroots Sierra Club activists involved, some Bay Area people from Desert Survivors, a burgeoning network of Native activists, and yours truly as well as a few others. “Battle hardened?” I suppose. We battled like hell to get the major groups to take any kind of a stand. Western Watersheds filed suit, as did the Native group La Cuna de Aztlan, and they did so when it was clear that all the big groups merely intended to get what deals they could.

The fact is that Ivanpah was supposed to be the plant that went down easy, that the big groups allowed to happen so that they could claim to be supportive of big desert solar when they decided at some unknown future date to oppose some project that would possibly be worse than Ivanpah. None of the big groups expected Ivanpah to become a cause. So when Madrigal says:

It’s telling that no power plant ever inspired more organized groups to comment on a plant than Ivanpah, not even the Sundesert nuclear plant, the symbolic end of nuclear power in California.

…he makes yet another error.

Full disclosure: I happen to have a dog in this fight, as do you readers of this blog: it was in large part due to a campaign right here that Ivanpah got as many comments as it did. That campaign was hatched precisely because the mainstream groups were letting Ivanpah slide, asking that a boundary here, a roadway there be moved. The campaign here doubled the number of comments submitted to the CEC.  Madrigal’s “organized groups” thus had less to do with that record than he claims.

That “Sundesert nuclear plant” mention, by the way, is just weird. Sundesert was a large two-reactor Westinghouse nuclear plant San Diego Gas & Electric wanted to build along the Colorado River fifteen miles south of Blythe. There was opposition to the plant, to be sure, but the plant was by no means a cause celebre the way its fellow nuclear plants at Diablo Canyon or Rancho Seco were. Sundesert died an ignominious death at the hands of the State of California, which had grown increasingly concerned about the issue of nuclear waste storage. Opposition to Sundesert helped kill it, of course, but to hold that plant up as a benchmark for opposition and comment when there were others that inspired mass movements and wholescale civil disobedience? That is strikingly off-kilter, the kind of mistake generally made by people who think Wikipedia is a primary source. Generally, those people tend to write articles for SEO link farms, not for the Atlantic Monthly.

That off-kilter quality continues weaving its way through Madrigal’s piece. Ivanpah is variously described as a wilderness — which says to me that Madrigal hasn’t set foot there, as not even its most fervent defenders would go that far – and as an example of wholly human-created landscape where “nature-loving people” won’t go:

That country is big, mechanical, and fast. It is the opposite of what people wander into the wilderness for.

A long passage illustrates the flexible selectivity of Madrigal’s vision:

One expects [the desert solar plants at Kramer Junction] to dominate the desert landscape, but in context, there was little dissonance between the plants and their surroundings. They were not out of scale.

Maybe it’s because just down the road, one of the world’s largest boron mines has made a hole in the earth that’s bigger than the mirror field and five hundred feet deep. Maybe it’s because on the way to Kramer Junction we drive past the giant logistics companies near Victorville, with their million-square-foot warehouses connected to the entire world by plane and train, the road-facing flanks of the buildings perforated with hundreds of semi-bays for trucking plastic toys and lawn furniture the last mile of the journey. Maybe it’s because on the drive back to the coast, we pass through the haze-filled San Joaquin Valley, in which a few mechanically enhanced hired hands create food on a truly impressive scale: miles and miles of fields feed just a tiny slice of our hunger for almonds. The whole enterprise is tawdry and sublime at the same time.

Having done the drive Madrigal describes more times than I can count (he’s talking about US 395 north from Victorville to Kramer Junction, and then west on Route 58 through the Western Mojave and over the Tehachapis) I can tell you – and I’m happy to show anyone who wants to make the drive with me – that the industrially altered land along that route is a very low percentage of the whole. If Madrigal actually made that drive, he somehow failed to notice about 150 miles of open desert, southern Sierra Nevada foothills, rolling interior oak woodland and alpine meadow separating the patches of industrial landscape he describes, which make up perhaps about 15 miles total.

I want to say I don’t believe he made that drive, that I don’t believe he visited the desert at all, but the sad fact is that even people who claim environmental concern can drive through hundreds of miles of open, intact, healthy desert and see nothing at all. Perhaps Madrigal is one of those people, dark tinted windows on his car to keep out the glare of desert sun, and windows just as dark in his heart to keep out inconvenient facts. In any event, after a long enough time picking through the factual wreckage of the piece, it begins to seem that Madrigal’s inattention to both detail and consistency serves a greater purpose. That he can refer, with no apparent ironic intent, to

desert tortoises who have had their homes moved to a carefully constructed new location as if they were very high-paid executives switching jobs

when a perfunctory search will show you that’s very charitably described as a flight of fancy, or that he can approvingly quote former California Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement at the Ivanpah groundbreaking that

“Some people look out into the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness. I see miles and miles of gold mine.”

becomes less bumbling and more blithe.

The key is Madrigal’s misleading quote of ecologist Erle Ellis in a 2009 Wired Op-Ed. Ellis’ point was to attack the persistent view of nature and humanity, wilderness and society as somehow mutually exclusive. Ellis’ Op-Ed was deliberately provocative, hyperbolic even; there is much in it with which one could disagree. But it is in no way a call to pave wildlands for human convenience.

That doesn’t stop Madrigal. He quotes:

There is no turning back on the enormity of human civilization’s impact on the globe. Now is the time to recognize that even the wildest Amazonian and Mayan jungles are feral landscapes that have been permanently and massively altered. “We’ve got to stop trying to save the planet,” Ellis wrote in a WIRED Science article.[sic] “For better or for worse, nature has long been what we have made it, and what we will make it.”

His truncated retelling of Ellis’ Op-Ed is as good a summation as any of Madrigal’s vision of what environmentalism should become.

From the late 1950s onward, traditional Democratic liberals – the FDR type, not the eco type – had a pretty coherent program for making the country better: Boost public spending on the social goods that private enterprise seemed to neglect, including environmental protection to provide “qualitatively” better lives for a large middle class that had it all.

The impulse would eventually underpin Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs as well as Nixon’s environmental program. The strength and ductility of the environmental movement came through little environmental injustices, encountered in the new, treeless suburbs and the streets of the cities. Different subsets of Americans – often led by women like iconoclastic economist Hazel Henderson – began to coalesce around the idea that clean air and water were worth paying for.

Note that this environmentalism is not nature, endangered species, or wilderness focused: It is concerned, first and foremost, with humans. Clean and safe were more important than “natural.” The suburban housewives and baseball dads who supported the passage of the nation’s landmark environmental legislation were not interested in biomes, per se: They cared about the places that humans co-created, or, as ecologist Erle Ellis calls them, anthromes.

This is, of course, an oversimplification so extreme as to constitute misrepresentation. Let’s set aside for now the distortion of the “anthromes” concept into something Ellis might not recognize as his own. That deserves its own post and this is getting long. Let’s just look at the history. It was under Nixon, for instance, that the Endangered Species Act was passed into law, and that law is nothing if not a defense of biodiversity against human activity. Oddly, it nonetheless had wide support among Madrigal’s “suburban housewives and baseball dads.” Likewise with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, passed in the last months of LBJ’s administration. Or the Wilderness Act of 1964. The divide Madrigal postulates between human-centered and wilderness environmentalists doesn’t exist. The very concept of wilderness is, after all, human centered, the notion that (in Wallace Stegner’s words) something will go out of us if the last undeveloped places fall to the chainsaw and the bulldozer.

Instead, Madrigal harkens back to an environmentalism that never existed, an environmentalism in which bulldozing thousands of acres of habitat for human industrial use is seen as a boon, an environmentalism to which Floyd Dominy and James Watt could unhesitatingly pledge allegiance, an environmentalism in which the environment is of only secondary importance, if in fact it rates that high. In Madrigal’s environmentalism, we get to decide what we want the planet to do for us and then we get to make the planet do it, a relationship in which we are eternally Mother Earth’s demanding three year olds.

We can use and alter the non-human parts of the landscape if they serve our purposes, and ignore them or shove them out of the way if they don’t.

Which, oddly, is the same relationship Madrigal the Writer seems to have with facts.

Violet-green swallows

King of The Mountain

Of all the side-blotched lizards I saw on my Sunday hike – and there were hundreds – this was the only fellow that didn’t run out of camera range. He flinched, as they all do, and he did the usual sets of pushups, but then for some reason he didn’t withdraw to the safety of a crevice. I wasn’t advancing on him, to be sure. I’d merely sat about five feet away to drink some water, catch a little oxygen, and let the breeze dry my shirt. He settled in next to me and we watched the city.

I’d been wanting to try a different trail, one which Florian had recommended, but I got too late a start. I decided to go with a quick run up the trail nearest our house. This is rarely a bad choice, though the EMTs were gathered at the trailhead when I got there, helping a heat-stroked and dehydrated hiker down a thousand feet of mountain. It was eighty-five degrees. After the paramedics left, the lizards and I had the trail essentially to ourselves.

My sideblotched friend and I had a good view of Tahquitz Canyon from his rock pedestal. Annette and I were there a week ago, watched an eagle pair launch from an aerie up five hundred feet of cliff. This view wasn’t much different from the one the eagles must have had. I could just about hear the creek tumbling over its bed of cobbles. If not for the noise from town I probably could have. The mountainside I was on faced the door of the Convention Center about a mile away, and the rodeo was in town. Every single whoop and holler that made it to the PA system echoed with preternatural clarity off the rocks. A few minutes after the lizard and I settled in a sweet-voiced young woman took the mike to sing the national anthem. I asked the lizard if we should stand. He didn’t reply. Singing the Star Spangled Banner a capella proved too difficult a task for the woman. She shifted key downward a quarter tone with each two bars, each verse a tonal anticlimax to the preceding. It sounded as though she were a large, very patriotic, slowly leaking balloon.

Swallows had followed me up the cliff. There were almost as many as there were side-blotched lizards. Out hiking again without my binoculars I pulled out my phone, fired up the field guide and sorted through the possibilities. They had bellies of uninterrupted white from chin to tail and what looked like bands of white across their lower backs as if their pants had slid to reveal the cotton briefs beneath. The guide pointed unambiguously toward the violet-green swallow. The birds were singing exuberantly. I played the recorded song in the field guide to confirm the identification, and as soon as the recorded song played about a dozen of the swallows raced toward me to take issue with what I’d said. Perhaps my accent was off. The sudden air assault unnerved my lizard acquaintance, and he dove for cover. After a few minutes, the rodeo providing a country western soundtrack, I moseyed.

Violet-green swallows are common enough throughout the West, but I always associate them with deserts. That may be because the first time I identified one, six years ago or so, it was flitting among the tufa towers at Mono Lake. They live as happily in forests and farm country as deserts. Their scientific name, Tachycineta thalassina, more or less means swift-moving seabird, and you can indeed add the sea to the violet-green’s list of amenable habitats. They seem to do well anywhere they can find insects to eat.

Insects were out in force in the desert. There was an embarrassment of bloom. So many of the local brittlebush were in flower that each large shrub held one or two bees: they’d had to spread out far and wide to reap the harvest. I followed the trail around a rock corner and into a “cove,” a natural amphitheater that blocked the sound from town, and I heard a massive swarm of bees seemingly heading my way. I flinched, but there was no swarm. The cove held a few thousand blooming plants, and each one had a bee or two minding their own beeswax therein, and the hum from each of those dispersed bees was combined by the rock wall acoustics of the cove. It was no swarm but simply the desert going about its business; flowers set bloom, bees sow seeds, swallows make patterns in the air to eat the bees.


It was a slow hike, and not particularly ambitious, and aside from another chance meeting or two;

Hello Chuck

…it was uneventful. After two hours of poking I got to the famous warning sign:


And I sat for a while longer.


Wolf Update: Help the groups that stood firm

Interesting discussion going on in the wolf post comments, with several people who know more than I do holding forth instructively — and one person who knows remarkably less than I do as well. It’s funny: as that commenter, “K,” was accusing me of being unfair to the ten groups settling, I had just seen a YouTube video, since taken down, that intercut the names of the groups who’d settled with photos of wolves, each photo in turn being shot with holes and/or drenched in red. I thought that a post like mine is the last thing Gang Green’s partisans should worry about. These groups have stomped on a PR blowback landmine.

Apropos of that, I’ve heard that at least one of the groups holding firm in the Wolf delisting lawsuit has gotten a few extra donations as a result. Good idea. These are wonderful groups and deserve your support. If you’ve donated to some of the big groups to support their wolf work — and consequently, without having any say in the matter, helped fund their betrayal of the wolves, and of your trust — here’s a chance to undo that damage.

Here are the links:

Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ Donation Page;

Western Watersheds Project’s Donation Page;

Friends of the Clearwater’s Donation Page.


Blogular upheaval warning

Just a note to let folks know that over the next days, when I have time here and there, I’ll be making a few changes which will have the effect of blurring this distinction between this blog and the previous one.

They’ll be design changes rather than editorial, just making the older writing mesh more seamlessly with the site as she is today. It has bugged me increasingly as time passes that people visiting the old site seem never to find their way to anything I’ve written after June 2008. I wanted to make a clean break back then, and I did, but keeping the separation there now seems less and less important, and making it easy for people reading the latest news about Zeke from 2004 to find what I’m up to now seems more important.

So: design potholes may be found ahead. Let me know if anything seems a trifle unadjusted. And I’ll have to find a way to preserve Carl’s beautiful Pleistocene Pinole Creek banner for interested people, which all of you should be.

This evening

Desert Center Ironwood

Ironwood in the Chuckwalla Valley

We didn’t find much in the way of wildflowers on our Route 62 wildlflower explorational foray. A few desert dandelions, a couple of lupines, some Chaenactis. At the north end of the Coxcombs a wash was dotted here and there with blooming bladderpod.

Datura getting ready to bloom someday. Not much else.

So we changed the day trip to a mountain viewing excursion, and it was immediately a huge success.

Coxcomb Mountains

Disappearing forests

My days and nights are upside down these days. I work until late. I sleep until late. I am less enthusiastic than I could be. Maybe it’s a hangover from the huge amount of bad news this month, which at first I followed assiduously and helplessly.  Between the disasters in Japan and our embarking on yet another in our endless and concurrent string of wars, I suppose a bit of disorientation is to be expected. I don’t know. The Trident missiles are not falling on my roof; though earthquakes are common enough here in the Coachella Valley we are unlikely to see tsunamis anytime soon. Aside from concern over a few friends I’ve never met in Japan, my concern was necessarily academic. I lost heart after a while and stopped my constant refreshing of the news feeds.

In the meantime the same old disaster rolls along on the home front, this one a thing I could conceivably do something about, and yet year after year the desert loses ground, and we fight the same old battles in the public sphere. Mainstream enviros are incredibly reluctant to grant that the desert has any value at all.

I’ll confess it: I am disheartened.

This morning I passed along the news on Ken Cole’s paper on Joshua tree survival. I called Cole’s office and asked to see a copy of the paper, and he kindly sent it along. It is persuasive on the first quick reading I was able to give it.

Here’s a figure from the paper, showing in red the areas from which Joshua trees are likely to be extirpated in the last two or three decades of this century:


As the legend explains, orange areas are those in which sustainable populations of Joshua trees may well hold out, while the pale green areas are places where new populations of the trees might thrive, if they can get there before the species winks out.

I’ve long known that the southernmost populations are in trouble, between Joshua Tree National Park and the Antelope Valley, and that’s distressing enough. But look at the portion of the map that centers on the Mojave National Preserve:


I’ve added the approximate boundaries of the Preserve in black, and labeled a couple of things.

You see that U-shaped red splotch with a band of orange and yellow at its base? The one that comes down into the Preserve from the northwest and then doubles back, heading out of the Preserve toward the northeast?

Right now, that is the largest Joshua tree forest in the world.

It’s not a solid forest. There are are few places in that U where you can stand next to a tree and not see where the next one is over the rise. But the trees are close enough to be considered the same population, more or less.


I took this photo standing at the south end of that U, looking more or less north. The curved horizon there, the profile of Cima Dome, is about ten miles away. Aside from crossing Kelso-Cima Road, you could just about walk the entire way to that horizon and never be more than ten feet from a Joshua tree, and then you could do the same thing for another 12 miles farther north.

You see the little orange splotch on Cole’s map, that I’ve marked Cima Dome? That’s a few dozen acres atop that horizon. Cole thinks it likely that a very small remnant of the world’s largest Joshua tree forest might just hang on there, small enough that you could stand in the new forest’s middle and see both edges.

The other spot I’ve marked, the Wee Thump Wilderness, is the northeasternmost part of this swarm. Here’s a photo of the place taken in 2008. Cole’s team predicts that will be gone for good. Maybe a few remnant trees will hang on in the McCullough Mountains, and in the New Yorks farther south.

It’s an ironic thing. Climate change is threatening the trees, and their only hope is to be able to migrate north and upslope. And yet the mainstream environmental movement sees no value in the trees’ only corridors northward, aside from those corridors being level spots of ground to put solar power plants on.

It’s a fiendish coincidence that this is the centenary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The image I’ve had in my head all day is the trees trying to escape the heat and fire, only to find out that environmentalists have nailed the emergency exits shut.

Cole’s data is just that, and some smart people have quibbled with his work in the past, and science is always developing. Maybe we’ll still have Joshua tree forests for me to hike in when I’m a hundred twenty years old.

But it doesn’t look good, and I despair of persuading the greens that the forests deserve to survive every bit as much as the polar bears do.

Uncertain Future for Joshua Trees Projected with Climate Change

This image, from April 2004, shows mortality of some adult Joshua trees resulting from years of hot-dry climate. During the prior year, this area received only 17 percent of its average precipitation and was 4 degrees F warmer than average—conditions that are projected to become even more frequent in models of future climate. Seedlings and saplings in this southerly stand of Joshua trees are rare to non-existent. Photo by Ken Cole , USGS

[a USGS press release.]

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Temperature increases resulting from climate change in the Southwest will likely eliminate Joshua trees from 90 percent of their current range in 60 to 90 years, according to a new study led by U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Ken Cole.

The research team used models of future climate, an analysis of the climatic tolerances of the species in its current range, and the fossil record to project the future distribution of Joshua trees. The study concludes that the species could be restricted to the northernmost portion of its current range as early as the end of this century. Additionally, the ability of Joshua trees to migrate via seed dispersal to more suitable climates may be severely limited.

“This is one of the most interesting research projects of my career,” said Ken Cole, a USGS ecologist and the study’s lead author. “It incorporated not only state-of-the-art climate models and modern ecology, but also documentary information found in fossils that are more than 20,000 years old.”

By using fossil sloth dung found in desert caves and packrat middens — basically, the garbage piles of aptly named packrats — scientists were able to reconstruct how Joshua trees responded to a sudden climate warming around 12,000 years ago that was similar to warming projections for this century.  Prior to its extinction around 13,000 years ago, the Shasta ground sloth favored Joshua trees as food, and its fossilized dung contained abundant remains of Joshua trees, including whole seeds and fruits. These fossil deposits, along with fossil leaves collected and stored by packrats, allowed scientists to determine the tree’s formerly broad range before the warming event.

The study concluded that the ability of Joshua trees to spread into suitable habitat following the prehistoric warming event around 12,000 years ago was limited by the extinction of large animals that had previously dispersed its seeds over large geographic areas, particularly the Shasta ground sloth. Today, Joshua tree seeds are dispersed by seed-caching rodents, such as squirrels and packrats, which cannot disperse seeds as far as large mammals. The limited ability of rodents to disperse Joshua tree seeds in combination with other factors would likely slow migration to only about 6 feet per year, not enough to keep pace with the warming climate, Cole and his colleagues concluded.

The Joshua tree, a giant North American yucca, occupies desert grasslands and shrublands of the Mojave Desert of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah; Joshua Tree National Park in California is named after this iconic species. The Joshua tree is known for its distinctive shape and height of up to 50 feet.

Results of the study, “Past and ongoing shifts in Joshua tree distribution support future modeled range contraction,” appear in a current edition of “Ecological Applications.” The research team included Kenneth L. Cole, U.S. Geological Survey; Kirsten Ironside, Northern Arizona University; Jon Eischeid, NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory; Gregg Garfin, University of Arizona; Phillip B. Duffy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and University of California; and Chris Toney, USDA Forest Service.

[I have previously reported on Ken Cole’s work here and here.]

Photographer: Ken Cole , USGS

The Further Adventures of Gang Green

Last week ten green groups signed off on delisting the gray wolf in Montana and Idaho.

The ten – let us name the names – were Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Wildlands Network, Center for Biological Diversity, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. They were part of a coalition of thirteen groups, represented by Earthjustice, that secured a court victory last year returning wolves in those states to Endangered Species Act protection. In that victory, Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the species could not plausibly be said to consist of distinct populations whose boundaries hew closely to state lines, and thus if wolves in the northern Wyoming part of Yellowstone were endangered, then wolves a hundred yards away in the southern Montana portion of Yellowstone must necessarily be as well.

The non-settlers are non-plussed:

“They’re giving away our victory,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which along with the Friends of the Clearwater and Western Watersheds Project, is opposed to the proposed settlement of their case. “So why did they even bother filing the lawsuit?”

The decision to settle the case also left at least one environmental group not involved in the case a little confused.

“The biological situation for wolves in the Northern Rockies is just as perilous now as when these groups challenged the delisting in June 2009,” said John Horning of WildEarth Guardians. “Amazingly, the settlement asks for the judge to approve delisting on terms that violate his ruling.”

For Earthjustice’s part it dropped out as attorney of record, citing ethical issues, when its clients split their strategies.

Under the terms of the settlement, the feds will come up with some jury-rigged taxonomy that allows delisting of specific populations of gray wolves whose boundaries are tailored as closely as possible to fit the state lines of Idaho and Montana.

The court settlement clears the way for renewed wolf hunts should Idaho and Montana decide in favor of hunts, and Idaho and Montana – being, after all, Idaho and Montana – will likely do so in short order. The settlement also allows some utterly ludicrous pretexts for controlling “problem wolves”; for instance, wolves on public lands can be shot if they are “negatively impacting elk populations,” which as I understood it has been part of the wolf’s job description pretty much from day one.

The groups who settled claim they did so to forestall the threat of legislative delisting in Congress. Montana’s senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus introduced a bill last month to delist the wolf in Montana. The bill, if it passes, would set a horrible precedent by making listing under the Endangered Species Act a political process rather than the completely politics-free, neutral and objective process it is today in which the sober recommendations of top wildlife biologists are followed closely and species are given the full protection of the law as soon as it is shown conclusively that they need it without political wrangling, and I am amazed I got this far typing this sentence with a straight face. As our friends Demarcated Landscapes put it this week:

The settlement contains no promises, just some whispered intimations that someone will talk to someone and the Tester bill will be pulled. The bets are being hedged on a handshake deal.

In any event, whether or not the settlers get their deal, we’ve still got a species listing whose details are determined by politics. Honestly, I’d rather have the Tester bill’s kind of politics than this kind. At least when it comes to the Senate one could conceivably vote the sonsabitches out of office. When’s the last time you got a chance to vote for the head of NRDC? Where’s the “Recall Kieran Suckling” campaign? With the exception of the Sierra Club, whose board of directors is elected by the membership, none of the groups who are settling out of court are accountable to you in any way. If endangered species listing is going to become even more political than it already is, let’s keep that politics out in the open where we can vote on it, instead of in some star chamber hosting confidential negotiations among a dozen executive directors of Gang Green and their opposite numbers in government.

This is an unconstructive thing to say, I know. Johanna Wald and Bruce Hamilton and Kieran Suckling and all the fine people in all the green groups’ headquarters are making hard decisions, and I don’t know all the details. As the guy said on Facebook when his girlfriend finally got tired of being lied to, It’s Complicated. Sometimes you have to make tough calls. Sometimes the crooked path seems straightest. Integrity is a luxury afforded only to those without budgets.

And who the hell am I to judge anyway? All I do is walk out into the desert, a pair of sore feet, a pair of dry eyes, and then spin hyperbolic stories about what I see out there. Never mind that the hyperbole is rarely as unbelievable as the truth. I am short-sighted. I spend time in the Ivanpah Valley and all I see is creosote, the dust swirling in the triple-digit heat, the bashful head feints of tortoises and the flicker of the rosy boa’s tongue, all trivial, none of it important. The Center For Biological Diversity’s executive director looks at the Ivanpah Valley from his desk chair in Tucson and sees what I did not: a bargaining chip to be traded to make an organizational gain somewhere else. I lack the kind of credibility that comes with that expert perspective.

A week ago, heading back home from a hike, I found a tortoise sunning itself warily by the side of a two-lane road. I pulled over about a hundred yards away, greeted the tortoise with hesitant warmth. As long as I stayed more than fifteen feet away, he was content to share his desert roadside with me. I wondered whether he had crossing in mind. SUVs and trucks sped past, doing about 45 or so on average. I’ve helped a tortoise or two cross the road in the past, but only when I was sure they wanted to. I sympathized with this one, dealing with humans like me. Either we’re going about our business blind to what we run over along the way, or we decide we’re going to help and start making decisions that aren’t really ours to make, and if I were a tortoise I don’t know which flavor of human I’d find the bigger threat. 

Now selling signed copies of the Zeke book

Really, it’s kind of embarrassing that it took this long to set something up. But if you’ve been holding out on buying the Zeke book because you really wanted a signed copy, you can now order that signed copy here. It’s 20th century book ordering technology, available today!

Theoretically, you could also order a signed copy even if you already have an unsigned one. I really won’t mind.