’16 Calendar: Nature Calls (Again)

JUN: Ruby Beach.

For the third edition of “Nature Calls,” every image was captured in the state of Washington.

Making calendars is not a business for me. I started a couple years ago because some friends asked me to. I make them the way I like them – spiral-bound with nice paper so the images look good and I can actually write on them. Also I use a printer I trust.

So the calendar is expensive to produce. Mine are $30 each. I also learned last year that they cost a lot to send – I get sturdy containers to protect the calendars and the postage is ridiculous – so I need to charge $5 more for shipping. You can avoid the shipping charge if you can meet me for delivery at least as close to me as Columbia City.

I’d prefer payment via PayPal: gnbuzz@comcast.net is my account; make sure you note whether you are paying for shipping or want face-to-face delivery.

I will take orders until December 7, so there will be time to get the calendar to you by the holidays. [Read more…]

Lost in the Methow Valley Fires

Firefighters flee as the Twisp River fire advances unexpectedly near Twisp, Washington, August 20, 2015.  (Reuters/David Ryder)

This piece originally appeared in High Country News, Aug. 21, 2015

This piece also appeared on Verticulture by Outdoor Research, Aug. 28, 2015

I am haunted by a scene from about a week ago of young U.S. Forest Service firefighters taking a break at The Mazama Store, which I consider the best “hang” in the Methow Valley, just across the Cascades in central Washington state. They were such babies, so long and lean and fit, seemingly drowning in their impossibly large firefighting garb. In addition to soot and grime, they wore the look of thorough exhaustion that you see on the faces of new parents. And yet, with doors swung open on their white SUVs, they sat with crusty boots slung atop seats, chatting, eating, drinking and, yes, smiling. They were not broken.

Just days later, last Wednesday afternoon, three of their ranks were killed when their vehicle crashed and was overcome by the fire now raging near Twisp, Washington. One of their colleagues, a 25-year-old man, is in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Can those young people possibly remain as unbroken as they appeared in Mazama? They’ll have to.

Firefighters flee as the Twisp River fire advances unexpectedly near Twisp, Washington, August 20, 2015. (Reuters/David Ryder)

Firefighters flee as the Twisp River fire advances unexpectedly near Twisp, Washington, August 20, 2015. (Reuters/David Ryder)

Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Washington, a career first responder, fought back emotion as he addressed a press briefing in Chelan on Thursday morning. He represents the 8th congressional district, much of which now is up in smoke, and once he lost his partner and best friend in a gunfight. “It hurts deep,” he said, “but the job goes on.”

The job, as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee just noted, is “unprecedented cataclysm.” Some 390,000 acres are ablaze in the state, according to Inslee, already topping last summer’s total, which then seemed unfathomable. At more than 256,000 acres, the Carlton Complex Fire accounted for more than three-quarters of the acreage that burned in the state last year, making it the largest wildfire in Washington’s recorded state history. More than 300 homes were damaged.

The Okanogan Complex Fire, which was nearly 125,000 acres strong as of Friday morning, endangers much of the same area. The Twisp River Fire in which the firefighters perished has been merged into the Okanogan Complex. The Okanogan is feared capable of eclipsing the Carlton fire because of high winds and dry conditions.

I feel like one of those people who, upon learning of an acquaintance or loved one’s demise, declares, “But I just saw her/him yesterday.” As if the act of recently encountering someone cancels the fact of that person no longer existing. I was just breathing the ashy air of what seemed to be a perpetual campfire at the North Cascades Institute, which now sits vacant after Wednesday’s evacuation. I was just squinting at the normally spectacularly Technicolor peaks along the North Cascades Highway, which now is closed from Rainy Pass to Newhalem. That little company town owned by Seattle City Light is where we observed plumes of smoke on our way home. Rainy Pass is the location of trailheads from which my wife and I took two hikes whose vistas often were obscured by smoke.
The whole region is an inferno? But I was just there. I’m a native Seattleite and North Cascades National Park, just 2 ½ hours away, is one of my favorite places to hike and photograph; this was my sixth visit this year.

Back in June, I also was in Queets Valley, in Olympic National Park, as the Paradise Fire that eventually erupted there was simply smoldering. Many have seized upon that fire as significant because the Queets, being a rainforest, is such a ripe symbol of the consequences of climate change. I see that, but being there amplified to me the area’s remoteness. Nothing burns a hole in your heart, to paraphrase Inslee’s characterization of the firefighters’ deaths, like putting a face on tragedy.

We almost did not visit the Methow Valley Interpretive Center, which is squeezed into a trailer house in Twisp. It was Sunday and the downtown area was deserted, as was TwispWorks, the artist enclave that encircles the center. But it was hot and we already were disappointed that we couldn’t drive down to Wenatchee since the route passed through Chelan, which was ablaze and being evacuated.

The senior woman volunteer on duty that afternoon probably hadn’t been expecting visitors when we sauntered in. She was engrossed in a paperback book, but glanced up and cheerily offered to answer questions. That’s how I came to know what was meant when officials issued a Level 3 evacuation in Twisp and Winthrop on Wednesday.

There was a Level 3 evacuation in Twisp last year, the nice lady said. I was thinking in Defcons, where lower numbers express higher states of readiness. I asked how high the evacuation scale went.

“Oh, three is the highest,” she said. “It means get out now.”

She got out; she was going to visit her daughter anyway. Hopefully, she’s returned. My wife and I feel badly that we didn’t learn her name.

There are more than 100 large, uncontained wildfires raging in 15 western states, according to Tom Tidwell, the U.S. Forest Service chief who Thursday called the spread and intensity of wildfires “the new normal.” More than 7 million acres already have burned in the U.S. this year. Washington, my home state, had 25 active wildfires as of Friday.

A lot of people saw this coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

Snowpack melt was up to a month earlier than 50 months ago, according to the National Wildlife Federation, and combined with warm weather extending further into fall makes for longer fire seasons. Summertime temperatures are projected to increase 3.6 to 9 degrees by midcentury, creating drier, fire-inducing conditions, the NWF said. The climate-induced changes have led to widespread insect infestation, creating wildfire fuel in the form of dead and highly combustible trees, and lightning is becoming more prevalent because of more severe thunderstorms, the NWF reported.

It’s an insidious cycle with no end in sight. Scientists, to wit, point out that carbon dioxide released back into the atmosphere by wildfires worsens global warming.

The fires consume more resources. Firefighting comprised 42 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget in 2014, for example. It was 16 percent in 1995. Inslee has deployed five 20-person crews from the Washington National Guard with perhaps two more on the way soon. Washington will receive more resources via a federal emergency declaration approved by President Obama on Friday, and likely will receive international assistance from Canada and maybe even Australia.

Wildfires also cause inconvenience that must be kept in context.

The power went out in the region during our last night in the Methow. The Mazama Store remained open and the mood stayed festive. It was Brat Night at the little food booth in back, but lack of electricity meant the bratwurst could not be grilled. They kept the beer flowing, however, and sold the brats raw at a discount; we cooked ours on the gas grill at our cabin. We couldn’t be bummed, especially when fire burned through the Twisp River line last Thursday afternoon and residents were warned by the Okanogan County Electric Co-Op not to expect power for “a few days.”

As we were leaving the next morning, we spied a black bear on the grounds. When I reported the sighting, the front desk attendant said bears were usually not spotted there. We had been wondering, as nothing in the complex or surrounding area was bear-proofed. Later at the Interpretive Center, we viewed the skeleton of a young bear burned to death in the Carlton Fire, which had seared off its two front paws. It occurred to us that the black bear we saw might have been chased away from its natural habitat by wildfire.

I can’t be certain that’s true but, sorting through the haze of both memory and current developments, it seems sadly plausible.

Glenn Nelson is a Seattle-based journalist and founder of trailposse.com. He tweets @trailposse.

Why are Our Parks So White?

New York Times Illustration by Dada Shin

This piece originally appeared in the New York Times July 10, 2015

New York Times Illustration by Dada Shin

New York Times Illustration by Dada Shin

SEATTLE — MOUNT RAINIER stands sentry over Seattle. On clear days, the mountain is the dominant backdrop, particularly in the city’s southeast, where its most racially diverse neighborhoods embrace their majestic setting with names like Rainier Valley and Rainier Beach.

Michelle Perry lives in an adjoining neighborhood and travels to work on Rainier Avenue South. The looming mountain enchants and beguiles nearly the entire way. She knows she can keep driving south and visit Rainier and the national park that surrounds it. Ms. Perry, 58, an African-American, has an idea about what she’d find up there — mosquitoes, which she hates, and bears, cougars and wolves, which she fears.

“The mountains are beautiful to watch,” she said, pausing for effect, “from a distance.”

As it approaches its centennial on Aug. 25, 2016, the National Park Service says it wants to encourage people like Ms. Perry to visit. It has its work cut out for it.

The national parks attracted a record 292.8 million visitors in 2014, but a vast majority were white and aging. The most recent survey commissioned by the park service on visitation, released in 2011, found that 22 percent of visitors were minorities, though they make up some 37 percent of the population.

This suggests an alarming disconnect. The Census Bureau projects that the country will have a majority nonwhite population by 2044. If that new majority has little or no relationship with the outdoors, then the future of the nation’s parks, and the retail and nonprofit ecosystem that surrounds them, will be in trouble.

Jeff Cheatham grew up in southeast Seattle, and still lives in Mount Rainier’s shadow. Yet, he said of Mount Rainier and other national parks, “I’ve never been, and never thought about going.” A 29-year-old African-American writer, Mr. Cheatham said he didn’t even know what a national park was, or what he would be likely to find at one. “As far as I know, it’s a big field of grass,” he said.

A neighbor, Carla DeRise, has been to Mount Rainier and other parks, and is game to go again. She just can’t get any of her friends to come along. They are worried about unfriendly white people, hungry critters and insects, and unforgiving landscapes, said Ms. DeRise, 51, an African-American. So she mainly hikes alone, albeit with some anxiety. “I don’t have a weapon,” she quipped. “Yet.”

I also live in one of the Rainier neighborhoods, close to where I grew up, the son of a Japanese mother. I met my oldest friend in the Boy Scouts, an African-American from a family that, like mine, frequented the parks. In college, he and I led outings for minority student groups.

There was always nervous banter as we cruised through small rural towns on our way to a park. And there were jokes about finding a “Whites Only” sign at the entrance to our destination or the perils of being lynched or attacked while collecting firewood after the sun went down. Our cultural history taught us what to expect.

This is part of what the park service is up against, which may help explain why so many minorities say they know little about the nation’s parks or what to expect when visiting them. In the 2011 park service survey, nonwhites were more than three times as likely as whites to say that the parks provided poor service and were not safe to visit.

And those responses were from nonvisitors, which means that perceptions had congealed into reality among what should be an important constituency for the parks.

We need to demolish the notion that the national parks and the rest of nature are an exclusive club where minorities are unwelcome.

The place to start is the National Park Service. About 80 percent of park service employees in 2014 were white. The parks’ official charity, the National Park Foundation, has four minority members on its 22-person board.

Minorities did not exceed 16 percent of the boards or staffs of some 300 environmental organizations, foundations and government agencies included in a 2014 study for Green 2.0, an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity in such institutions. Minorities hold fewer than 12 percent of environmental leadership positions, and none led an organization with a budget of at least $1 million, the study found.

The National Park Service is the logical leader to blaze a trail to racial diversity in the natural world. It has a high public profile, and its approaching centennial can serve as a platform for redefinition.

But the agency has so far missed the opportunity. It doesn’t even know how many minorities visit the parks these days because it doesn’t routinely track such information. Its initial centennial-related campaign, Find Your Park, includes but doesn’t specifically target minorities and was delivered mainly to the already converted.

Efforts like handing park passes to fourth graders and their families, firing up Wi-Fi in visitor centers, and holding concerts on seashores or valley floors will similarly miss the mark. The park service should use its resources and partnerships to execute an all-out effort to promote diversity within its ranks and its parks. Its outreach should be tailored to minorities and delivered where they log in, follow, Tweet, view or listen. The park service needs to shout to minorities from its iconic mountaintops, “We want you here!”

Such a campaign could include educational programs about the importance of the outdoors to a healthy lifestyle, transportation solutions for carless urban dwellers, and advice on easy and safe ways to enjoy the parks.

The national parks are every American’s vacation home. My wife and I have immigrant mothers who view ownership of the national parks as a grand perk of their naturalized citizenship. Such entitlement must be nurtured in underserved communities. As the world becomes more urbanized, it is increasingly essential to preserve the outdoors as a respite for everyone.

This notion begs for a ubiquitous marketing effort: “I am (hiking/camping/fishing) in my own backyard,” set in various parks and with people of different backgrounds.

We need to inspire people like Jordan Quiller, a 21-year-old African-American who had never seen a mountain until he moved into one of the Rainier-monikered Seattle neighborhoods at the end of last year. He’s never visited a national park, but would like to.

Three national parks lie within a three-hour drive of Seattle. “It takes a little planning,” Mr. Quiller said. “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

I hope the National Park Service and its partners are listening.

The founder of The Trail Posse, a website that encourages diversity in the outdoors.


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