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Shadowed by St. Helens

Today news reporters are almost happily diverting from COVID-19 to recount another disaster, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 on this date. As at least one news account notes, in a way the eruption was a great success for the efforts of the scientists who urged evacuations of areas around the volcano (there is a clear undercurrent of, “are we listening to the scientists today?”). Although there were deaths, there were far fewer than if there had been no evacuated red zone.

But events that started a week later, and went pretty much under the radar for years, provide the flip side to the “confident scientists save people” storyline: it was more “pretty worried scientists deal economic blow to town.” And given where we are in the COVID-19 story, it is worth remembering both the success of St. Helens and the failure(?) that started a week later.

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Oldest Parks

Sometimes the question arises, what was the first (or second or third) national park in the United States? In GG’s book, Sequoia is named the second federally-administered park and the first created in a state. But the chronology is kind of complex and there is another solid contender for the title. Here is a summary of some of the dealings with federal lands that became or were named National Parks:

  • 1832. Congress reserves from entry (meaning nobody can purchase the land) sections around the hot springs in Arkansas Territory that now are within Hot Springs National Park.
  • 1864. Congress turns over Yosemite Valley to the State of California for the purpose of public use, resort and recreation (Whitney terms this a national park in his 1869 guidebook).
  • 1872. Congress reserves Yellowstone as a public park (the phrase “national park” is not in the legislation.)
  • 1877. Mackinac National Park is created in Michigan by act of Congress (p517); here there is the phrase “national park”.
  • September 25, 1890. Bill creating Sequoia National Park signed by President Harrison. Very similar to the Yellowstone legislation and uses the phrase “public park” and not “national park.”
  • October 1, 1890. Bill creating Yosemite National Park (around Yosemite Valley), General Grant National Park, and expanding Sequoia National Park is signed. This legislation is more specific in what is to be protected and how, but terms these forest reserves and not parks.
  • 1895. Mackinac National Park is handed over to the state of Michigan along with the military reservation.
  • 1916. The National Park Service is created. In addition to the lands designated as national parks, the service oversees Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas.
  • 1921. Hot Springs National Park is officially created, replacing the Hot Springs Reservation.

Is Sequoia number 2? 3? 4? 5? Let’s review…

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Bloody Sierra

Two facets of the human history of the Sierra that GG (mostly) left out of his book came together recently. One was the genocide of California Indians during and after the Gold Rush, an outrage now officially apologized for by the governor of California, and the other was the immigration and emigration of Chinese associated with the Transcontinental Railroad, now addressed in Gordon Chang’s recent book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain. Both events and the stories of marginalized peoples are tied to the presence of the Sierra, but neither in such a unique way as to make each story a centerpiece in GG’s book. As this would seem to continue marginalizing these peoples, GG would like to explain a bit why these stories were not more prominent in the book.

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Signs of Mineral King


A SkiCooper trail sign.

Well, it’s January and ski season is in high gear in North America, halfway between the Christmas and Presidents Weekend high water marks for ski areas.  So many of you have seen lots of signs like those above. The irony is that these symbols, now so universal, were developed for a ski area that never was.

In 1964, the nascent National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) decided to try to make relatively uniform sign markers for skiers in North America. European ski areas had simply used colors; the new USA system would add shapes to the colors (which has obvious advantages for color blind skiers and for monochrome signage). But they committed a bit of a faux pas: the US intermediate color was used in Europe for out of bounds areas.


As this system was being promoted, Walt Disney Corp. was working on ski areas, largely because Walt had decided after the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley that he’d like his own ski area. Disney settled on Mineral King Valley, which set up a lengthy legal and political battle, but as part of the work being done for that development, Disney Corp. studied what would be the best signage to use. They were perhaps more sensitive to this given their experiences getting people around Disneyland.  Their studies suggested that circles were the softest shape and most suitable for easy slopes, followed by the squares and then diamonds. The NSAA saw their work and adopted it, pitching their own system aside.

Disney was never able to use their system at their own resort.


Disney and his Mineral King area. Via SAMLAND blog, 

As is discussed more thoroughly many other places (including GG’s own Mountains that Remade America), first the Park Service (that had to approve a realigned road) dragged its feet, and then the Sierra Club chose to oppose the development. Toss in the additional requirement of an Environmental Impact Statement, the death of Disney shortly after holding a news conference in Mineral King, a change in political representation and a general shift in the public from favoring development to favoring preservation¹ and the eventual death of the ski area proposal becomes clear.

Anyways, those signs (er, and the Country Bears Jamboree) are among the most lasting reminders of the Mineral King debacle. The influence of Disney’s work on skiing symbols even evolved into a warning system for something a bit more hazardous: volcanoes. Although the USGS was blocked for awhile after a volcano advisory in Mammoth Lakes misfired, because communication with local officials and, later, the public became necessary, the Long Valley USGS group used these now-familiar symbols for awhile (1997-2006):

So while Disney loyalists to this day pine for the ski area that never was, they can console themselves (a little) in seeing these reminders on any North American slope they care to visit.

¹ for instance, during this time Denver went from seeking the 1976 Winter Olympics to refusing to host them, largely over financial concerns but also because of environmental objections.

Book Knowledge

Well, its been several months since The Mountains that Remade America came out, and it feels like it is worth a moment to contemplate the process, particularly the surprises.  Just in case anybody else is interested.

Writing an academic trade book is kind of neither fish nor fowl.  A textbook is in some ways a glorified collection of lecture notes. Now you do have to go through and fix up things, and often you realize there are things you don’t teach that should be in the book, but this is material you are deeply familiar with.  Often the hardest part is coming up with exercises at the end of chapters that aren’t too bland and aren’t too hard.  Tedious, yes.  In some ways the oddest part about textbooks is that you don’t generally cite the source material the way you might in a journal article, which can be liberating.

A regular trade book (you know, like novels or anything without footnotes) is similarly liberating: maybe you sort of recall some piece of information, and you are pretty confident it is right, but you can’t lay your hands back on it, well, you can stick it in.  Now depending on the topic, a fact checker might be employed to look for mistakes, but that can be somebody else’s job.

No, an academic trade book rests on the author’s shoulders more squarely. Read More…

Sawyer redux?

GG has pointed out here and in The Mountains that Remade America that the Sawyer decision that ended hydraulic mining in most of the Sierra Nevada is a very interesting precedent when you consider global warming and oil and gas companies. We’re getting closer to seeing if the comparison will withstand real scrutiny, as the City of New York has filed suit (joining a number of smaller jurisdictions, including Boulder) against the five largest oil companies. As with the plaintiff in Woodruff v. North Bloomfield, the New York City case alleges material damages, and as in the older case, this was a consequence of the action of several companies.  And as in that case, the only way to mitigate damage would be to leave large economic reserves of a mineral (as legally defined) in the ground. Arguably the 1884 decision recognized that the damage to a growing economic sector (agriculture) outweighed damage to a stagnant sector (gold mining). We’ll see if any judge in the U.S. wants to walk in Judge Sawyer’s footsteps….

Take me back to Ahwahnee…

Update of sorts July 2019:  The old names (the Ahwahnee, Wawona Lodge, Curry Village) have been restored after the trademark dispute mentioned in the op-ed was settled. This apparently evoked some emotional responses from long-time park-goers. No word on any reaction from the descendants of the original inhabitants.

A curious op-ed in the New York Times on Yosemite.  Curious because it points in one direction for a long time before suddenly screeching to a stop and pointing in another. Leveraging off of the controversy over Confederate monuments and the renaming of some park facilities necessary during a court battle, Daniel Duane recounts the sad history of Native Americans in California in general and in the valley in particular. Readers can anticipate the point: we should abandon the Euro-Americanisms in the park and revert to names the Ahwahneechee used. And indeed he reaches this point only to ask the descendants and relatives of these people what should be done.  Their recommendation: get federal recognition for the tribe and cut back on visitation. “Renaming, [Bill Leonard, a descendent of Tenaya] said, ‘is not going to make us feel any better or more important — the reality is, most of us could care less what they call things.'” You get the feeling Duane was asked by some reader or editor to ask these people about their views (much as interviews with descendants of slaves and Confederate generals have appeared) and was given an answer kind of at odds with the thrust of the piece, which he dutifully tacked on.

Anyways, the summary of injustices is fair (Duane fortunately relies on a couple of pretty appropriate references) and something more Americans should be aware of. But he kind of lets the Park Service off the hook, hiding their role behind more generic labels of “park officials” and the “federal government.” Pre-1906 management of the valley by the state allowed the Ahwahneechee to stay in the valley, and while demands for inappropriate “Indian” shows and their menial position in Yosemite Park contrasts with what should have been their place as owners and proprietors of the valley, they were at least considered to be legitimate residents of the place. Federal management systematically marginalized and removed Native Americans; that management was, after 1916, the Park Service. There is something disturbing to most Americans to realize that one of the most highly thought-of groups of public servants did in fact behave in such a manner. And it is distressing to many who call the national parks “America’s Greatest Idea” to recognize that it was prefaced on the exclusion of the peoples who had been there first.

Duane also takes a hesitant slap at John Muir, and here GG asks a bit of forgiveness for delving a bit deeper.   Read More…

Golden Rules (book review)

GG has finished reading Mark Kanazawa’a Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush. It is not light reading (reader should beware that this is part of the University of Chicago’s “Markets and Government in Economic History” series).  In a sense, this book seeks to explain through economic theory how water law (and, to a lesser degree, mining law) evolved as the Gold Rush progressed. In some places this provides real insight, and in others it felt like forcing a straitjacket onto history, but the evidence presented is quite interesting.

Basically there are three main datasets mined here: descriptions of mining activity in the Alta Californian, mining camp rules, and California legal cases. As an economic historian, Kanazawa is clearly hoping for some quantitative data to sink his teeth into, and so the intent is to see trends over the whole of the goldfields.  As such, he is hoping that the record in the Alta Californian and in the available mining camp codes are not biased by the newspaper’s editorial slant or the fragmented record of the early mining camps.

With these in hand and the writer’s interest in economic history, the text generally explores a number of particular cases that suggest general trends, substantiates these with an overview summary analysis of the evidence, and then interprets this in terms of economic theory. For the general reader, the economic arguments can seem to wander into unfamiliar terminology rather too quickly, but the remainder of the book is very accessible. Given that the water rights that emerged from California have come to dominate the West, this is an important work if you want to understand resource law in the West.

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The Prepublication Ratchet

Update 8/25/17: The theory of occasional dumps to Amazon rankings was wrong; instead, individual book sales at these levels of rankings make a real difference (see near bottom); this was more or less confirmed by the “XX left in stock!” admonition as jumps coincided with a drop in XX by 1 (or on one day, drop by 2).

Sorry, this was just too amusing to pass up.  GG noted awhile back that his book was listed for preorder at Amazon.  Kind of a signpost that this was really going to happen.  But the startling thing was that they listed the book’s sales rank, within books as a whole and geology books and history books.  This seemed amazing seeing as no books had been sold yet.  Curious, GG kept track of this and the picture that emerged was a bit surprising:


The book seemed to slowly decline in popularity until July 3rd, when it leapt up before declining again until, once more, on July 31st.  This doesn’t seem to be the case with published books.  The first time, GG wondered if one brave soul had preordered the book. But the second time, exactly 4 weeks later?  Hmmm…. So GG is guessing that every 4 weeks, Amazon’s system dumps any accumulated preorders into the ranking system, producing an artificial spike.  If so, presumably the curve will continue to decay again until August 28th, when it will spike again–but then what happens on Sept. 5th when the book is published?

Yes, GG can be easily amused….

More update 8/5. Read More…

Geohero or geochump?

A comment at a meeting GG was at got him to thinking about the popular view of scientists.  The comment was that scientists in the 19th century were heroes for Americans because they helped open up the West, while in the 20th century they were more thorns in the sides of growth.  Of course, this is so oversimplified it collapses quickly: John Wesley Powell, a hero for his explorations of the Colorado River, was viewed with great disdain when he closed claims for public lands. And post-WWII America fell in love with science in many ways. But still, when are scientists lauded and when are they scorned? An interesting pair of cases in the late 1860s and 1870s may shed light on this.

In both cases a scientist running a geological survey became aware of claims of major mineral finds within the area of his survey.  In both cases, the scientist claimed that these finds were incorrect. In both cases, the finds were not economic. Yet in one case, the scientist in question, Clarence King, was lauded, became first director of the USGS, and was viewed as one of the best and brightest America had to offer.  The other, Josiah Whitney, lost his survey and spent years grousing about the outcome. Why the difference?

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