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Uncertain Path (book review)

William Tweed’s Uncertain Path is essential reading for anybody interested in the national parks, wilderness areas, or the challenges of ecological change. Tweed, in framing his story around a backpack in 2006 along the John Muir and High Sierra trails, finds ample motivation for uncovering the many different facets of the twin jewels of parks and wilderness. 

The book is a curious combination of travelogue, mea culpa, history and ecology. Tweed’s background working in the parks for decades, including a stint as chief planner for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, means he has skin in this game. In addition to the insights such familiarity provides, this also provides a driving motivation. 

The mea culpa aspect is most interesting. Tweed left the park service in part because he felt key challenges were papered over by the promise of the organic act for the park service, a promise he had vocalized on many occasions: that the parks would be preserved unimpaired for future generations. No longer finding that promise possible, he left the parks to help steer them from the outside. It is clear that recognition haunts him still. 

His hike leads yields observation after observation, some of small note (the presence of hot showers and a passing military jet) and others that build up (forest fires along the route lead to the revelation that climate change has increased fires even in remote wildernesses). As he passes features named for Muir and Pinchot, he reminds us of the rift between extractive and preservational uses of the land. Seeing horse parties and trail runners, he wonders about the changing mix and number of users.  Seeing shrinking glaciers and ghost forests leads to worries about ongoing climate changes. Crossing from parks to forest wilderness and back leads to consideration of the difference between preserving for future generations and providing a “wild” experience. 

At bottom, he argues that twenty-first century problems require a renegotiation with the American public. Parks solved the 19th century problem of resource development, and they could address internal problems in the 20th century like overuse. But climate change, fragmented habitats, pollution and invasive species demand a thoughtful change in management on how to accommodate change. The biologist would argue for a kind of interventionist  approach, actively transplanting species to newly favorable climates, for instance. Were the author a biologist, this might end the book. 

But Tweed was a ranger and planner; all those observations about human visitors and their desires comes into play. He is no Wilderness purist: Tweed argues that parks and wilderness will only survive as long as people will defend them and demanding purity can decrease the circle of defenders. Thus he worries about those using these lands as an outdoor gym, noting that the special protections for parks and wilderness are not necessary for such activities. But traditional users are declining. And so he argues that the parks also have to build support for any changes-and so he suspects the ideal ecological response is politically unwise. 

His hike in 2006 preceded publication in 2010. Some of his worries have materialized: his notes on the poor health of the mixed conifer forest anticipated the massive die-offs the last few years from insects. Others have not: after a few years of flat attendance, numbers at Yosemite have skyrocketed-and backcountry use has grown rapidly as well. Does this mean nature has reacquired favor? Or is the glut of throughhikers really marking the victory of the outdoor gym rat?  The answer is critical for plotting a path forward; we can hope for an updated edition someday. 

The book is an easy read, flowing nicely despite the frequent diversions. For those of us familiar with these trails, his descriptions, while not memorably poetic, evoke these places clearly (hard for GG to say if non-visitors would be similarly charmed). An experienced backcountry traveller, Tweed doesn’t have the stories of grotesque overpacking, blisters, neophyte behaviors and calamity that fill many other backcountry accounts. Although Tweed does tend toward a solution of sorts to his worries, it is his struggle with history and science that makes the book far more than a policy polemic. Many backpackers will recognize moments and thoughts Tweed shares, though he then integrates them and shows a broader theme at work than most would discern. In a way, this is the complement to Wild-an intellectual reflection on wilderness instead of the emotional journey of the hiker. Highly recommended. 

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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When you look back to find when the Old West died, GG would like to nominate 1906 as that magic year.

In 1906, the last of the classic gold rushes of the West reached its peak.  Goldfield, having been found just a couple years earlier, became the most populous city in Nevada on the basis of its considerable bonanza gold deposits.  It and its companion silver boom town of Tonopah represented the last gasp of big finds by miners wandering the west. As these towns faded out, the state of Nevada would try to find a new economic base.  First they encouraged travel for getting a divorce, and then they removed the restrictions on gambling. That transition from a mainly extractive economy to a mainly tourism based economy began as Goldfield started to empty out. The memory of the mining heritage would live on: nearly every Nevada town seems to have a casino named the Nugget (and most others have some mining theme, like “Bonanza” or “Silver strike”), but it would increasingly be tourists and not mineral veins that would be mined.

Another tourism related event–one most folks overlook these days–occurred in 1906. The first park set aside by the nation was Yosemite Valley; in 1864 it was transferred to the state of California to be protected in perpetuity. In 1890, advocates for protecting the surrounding high country had given up on the state, feeling it had mismanaging the park, and worked to get a federally managed national park created. Thus Yosemite National Park (the federal version) was created as the third national park behind Yellowstone and Sequoia. The state, however, continued to manage the valley. Continued agitation by park advocates finally led the state to relinquish control of the valley in 1906, in essence declaring an end to any possible equivalence of state and federal control of parklands. The transfer to the federal government would also end the state’s practice of allowing Native Americans to continue to live in the valley; though it would take the Park Service decades, they finally removed the last descendant of the Ahwahneechee from the valley. For most of the following century, Native Americans would be denied a modern presence in federal parks; instead they were relegated to colorful descriptions of their ancestors’ historic occupation of the land.

And then in 1906 the San Andreas Fault, only recently named at that point, failed in the catastrophic San Francisco Earthquake.  Between the quake and the fire, much of the city’s Gold Rush heritage was lost–not only buildings but photographs, written records and other memorabilia of a city that grew from a small trading post to an international metropolis on the back of the riches that passed out of the Sierra. As the city rebuilt, it would not be in the mold of the old Gold Rush town but would be the new financial and trade capital of the West Coast, one stylistically different from the city that had just been demolished.

So 1906 saw the loss of much memory of the Gold Rush, both in records in San Francisco and in activity as Goldfield began its decline. The era of modern tourism, with federally managed playgrounds and locally permitted houses of various sins, was grafted onto declining mining camps and previously state-managed land.

A coda helps to illustrate the transition. The 1906 quake triggered avalanches in the Sierra Nevada, including in the remote Mineral King valley high in the southern Sierra, where many of the buildings of a small resort were smashed.  The resort’s owner was seeking a patent on land being claimed as a mill site for associated mineral claims, a request opposed by the Sierra Forest’s supervisor, who pointed out that no mining was actually occurring. Despite the destruction of much of the resort, Arthur Crowley pushed together remains of two buildings to continue operations as he continued his quest for a paten. A court held that Crowley’s claim was valid, and the patent was granted. Mining law had opened up a tourism future; the driver of the West in the 19th century was giving way to that of the 20th century.

Mountains that Remade America

For those who come hoping to see material related to the Grumpy Geophysicist’s upcoming trade book on the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains that Remade America, here are a few quick pointers. Read More…

A Range of Opinion

…or, perhaps, when engineers and geologists collide. (This is one of those little episodes GG had pulled up for possible inclusion in his book The Mountains that Remade America only to find it something of an orphan).

In 1863, the Big Four responsible for construction of the Central Pacific Railroad were in desperate need of funds. The 1862 Pacific Railroad bill allowed $48,000/mile to be loaned once the railroad entered the Sierra Nevada but only $16,000/mile before then. Up to 150 miles of mountainous terrain could be claimed.  Eager to get the most money possible, Charles Crocker got the state geologist, Josiah Whitney, to go on a buggy ride to decide where the western edge of the range might be. Whitney allowed that the Sacramento River might be the most appropriate spot, but both he and Crocker could see the terrain was quite flat.  So they rode off some 6 or 7 miles east to Arcade Creek where some reddish sedimentary rock was exposed, and Whitney allowed that this was an appropriate spot to claim the edge of the range. But when Theodore Judah, who was director of the line and was responsible for identifying the route and who had shepherded the 1862 bill through Congress heard, he was appalled. This was 21 miles west of where the line would encounter its first real grades.

This episode is widely derided as Whitney engaging in deception to aid the railroad.  Was this another example of Josiah being a total ninny, as when he accepted the Calaveras Man claims, or when he said there had never been glaciers in Yosemite Valley?


Detail of Wagner et al., 1981, Geologic map of the Sacramento quadrangle, California, 1:250,000.

On the map above, the Sacramento River is at the left and the edges of crystalline rock of the Sierra is at the right. The Central Pacific runs under the “r” in the Arcade Creek label. The orange patterned unit on the map is the Turlock Lake Formation.  According to Unruh (1991), the 0.6 Ma Turlock Lake is tilted 0.19° to the west. For a geologist, this western edge of tilted and eroded Tertiary and Quaternary rock is indeed the most likely spot to mark the edge of the range. (Geologists today would not go along with the Sacramento River as the edge as its floodplain extends well east of Sacramento).

Whitney had, in fact, chosen a perfectly appropriate spot even though it was one that Stanford and Crocker had decided upon by measuring backwards 150 miles from the Truckee Meadows on the east side of the range. That this was not the essence of “mountains” as envisioned by an engineer like Judah was not Whitney’s fault; indeed, had the bill been written to assure that only truly mountainous terrain be included, Judah should have inserted minimum railroad grades or some other direct measure.

Whitney’s written acceptance of the Arcade Creek edge to the Sierra was seconded by two government surveyors in California and sent on to Washington, where Abraham Lincoln agreed that this was the appropriate point for the mountains to start. The Central Pacific got their higher loans earlier, but more through the ambiguity of the original legislation than deliberate misrepresentation on the part of the state geologist.


Return of the Young Sierra

Well, time to catch up on the evolution of the Sierra Nevada.  Although a large collection of paleoaltimetry papers has bolstered a case for the elevations in the Sierra having been created by the Eocene (most based on Rayleigh distillation of precipitation), a couple of other recent works, one geodetic and the other geomorphic, seem to indicate that Sierran topography has grown over the last few million years.

First up is an update on vertical GPS velocities in California and Nevada by Hammond et al. in the Journal of Geophysical ResearchThey find “…the Sierra Nevada is the most rapid and extensive uplift feature in the western United States, rising up to 2 mm/yr along most of the range….Uplift patterns are consistent with groundwater extraction and concomitant elastic bedrock uplift, plus slower background tectonic uplift.” This in some ways is trimming the sails a bit on the earlier Amos et al. paper in Nature; as we previously discussed this wasn’t entirely unexpected. Their money figure would be this:


The red blob in most of eastern California is the Sierra Nevada.  For most of the range, the pink colors correspond to uplift rates of 0.5-1.0 mm/yr. The presence of the pink/red colors in the central to northern Sierra, where there are no blue colors to the west, would indicate uplift is not being caused by groundwater withdrawal to the west (which is the cause of most of the dark blue south of 38°N and was the focus of the Amos et al. paper). Given the these rates would produce the modern mean elevation of the Sierra in under 6 million years, this would seem to strongly support the young Sierran story and be broadly consistent with the geologic story of a young uplift caused by removal of a dense root.

But, hmm, let’s look more closely…

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Disrepair…or misunderstood?

Nicholas Kristof apparently was on the John Muir Trail with his daughter about the same time GG was on the trail with his daughter (but GG had 3 llamas, while poor Nicholas had to make do with a backpack).  How did we miss each other?  Anyways, he wrote a bit about how we all own national parks but then included this damning note:

Even on the John Muir Trail, large stretches are in disrepair and had turned into creeks of snowmelt when my daughter and I hiked them. This quickly erodes the trails so much that new ones have to be built nearby. This reluctance to pay for maintenance isn’t even fiscally prudent, for it’s far more expensive to build new trails than to maintain old ones.

Now there are a lot of things that need repair or maintenance in national parks, but you know what?  It isn’t clear that the John Muir Trail is anywhere near the top of the list.

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