Mariposa Town Hall and Toppling Pines

This post comes to us by way of Rebekah Jensen and originally appeared on her blog, 52 Beads. It has been reposted with her permission. 

When western pine beetles overwhelm a ponderosa, you don't know it at first.  The beetles are tiny--about the size of a sesame seed--so their attacks are essentially invisible.  Moreover, although beetles may kill a tree rather quickly, the tree takes its time looking dead.  The same capillary action that keeps your Christmas tree fresh until the New Year can keep dead ponderosa pine trees green for many months.  Eventually, the tree announces its passing from the top down.  Orange needles first march groundward fromappear at the crown of the tree, then make their way down as its water column retreats and eventually winks out.

Here in the southern Sierra Nevada, we all know about the beetles.  They are why our hillsides went from green to golden in 2015, and from red to brown in 2016.  They are why our town is now swarming with tree companies--with their trucks, their workers, their hotel bookings and apartment rentals.  There is a large property on the west side of town that was cleared and leveled a few years back, leading people to believe that we were about to get a Wal-Mart, or perhaps a posh new apartment complex.  Instead, it stayed vacant, waiting for the beetles to do their work.  Now, it's the site of a massive wood-chipping operation.  Everywhere are stacks of mighty ponderosa logs, mountains of chips, trucks moving everything around.  And still the trees keep dying.

 November 2015 on one of my favorite trail-running roads, Sierra National Forest

November 2015 on one of my favorite trail-running roads, Sierra National Forest

The ponderosa pine zone wraps around the belly of the western Sierra, bridging the scrubby oak-and-bull-pine forests of the lower elevations with the shady mixed conifer stands of higher reaches.  At 1,950 feet above sea level, the town of Mariposa sits below the ponderosa belt--and, for that matter, below National Forest boundaries.  And yet, public lands and forest health were recurring themes on February 21, when U.S. Congressman Tom McClintock held a Town Hall meeting at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds.

It all started with a polite line of citizens outside Building A.  Some sat in camp chairs, others stood.  Some held umbrellas against the stop-and-go rain.  Most chatted and laughed, took pictures of one another, compared signs, wondered aloud how the meeting would go.  I arrived a few minutes after four o'clock, and took my place at the end of the line.  The Town Hall wasn't scheduled to start until six, but some shenanigans by one Marshall Long, Mariposa County Supervisor, had necessitated an early arrival.  A few days before, Mr. Long had dispatched an email to local Tea Party members warning them that "the progressive left has targeted this and all other town halls by Republican Congressmen to be disrupted and shut down."  He urged them to be at the Fairgrounds by 4:00 "to fill Building A before the other side does."

The parking lot, and the line, were a mosaic of both of Mr. Long's Sides.  Subarus and Priuses squatted between jacked-up trucks.  Baseball caps vowing to Make America Great Again and protect the Second Amendment alternated with woolen beanies and the occasional pink pussy hat.  The line was not so much single-file as single-cluster; that is, a cluster of people from one Side would be followed by a cluster of people from the other Side, etc. 

People drank tea and snacked.  The rain let up without my noticing it.  I kept holding my umbrella until I caught sight of a rainbow through the clear vinyl.  It stretched "all the way across the sky," as the Internet meme goes.  The rainbow was the first of two Acts of God, the second being the arrival, at that exact moment, of Yosemite Bear.  Most out-of-towners know Yosemite Bear as the Double Rainbow guy, for that is how he achieved YouTube fame.  Locally, he's Bear, or Paul Vasquez.  The Double Rainbow guy lives in rural Mariposa County, and turned out at the Town Hall to represent a Side.

Around five o'clock, the side door to Building A opened, and the single-cluster line shuffled inside.  Building A was actually just one room--a big, industrial room that in other moments likely housed dances and, quilt shows, expos of various kinds.  Today, it housed row after row of metal folding chairs separated by a wide center aisle.  Though you might expect the Sides to sort themselves along the center aisle, as is customary at weddings and in the U.S. SenateCongress, this was not the case at Tom McClintock's Mariposa Town Hall.  People sat as close to the front as possible, with political factions ignoring the east-west compass of the room.  Even with our early-bird position in line, the first seats available to my cluster were in the rear half of the room.  We took up a whole row of ten seats.  In front of us and behind us were uniformed members of the alt-right, complete with NRA logos, camo, inordinate amounts of makeup, and one Confederate battle flag.

To them, I suppose we might have looked like uniformed snowflakes.  My down jacket, Lynn's long gray hippie hair; maybe they looked at us and thought, "God, they just scream liberal!  Can't they ever tone it down?"  At any rate, as I scanned the room, it was easy to get a sense of who was who.  Mr. Long's Sides each appeared to represent about half of the democratic process that was about to unfold.

A little sign by the door reported the seating capacity as 850.  As six o'clock neared, the seats filled up, and people began to stand along the walls.  The door remained open.  This was good.  Congressman McClintock had entertained a bit of drama at his last Town Hall, held in Roseville about two weeks previous.  Known to his many antagonists as Tom McTrump, McClintock had attracted a large protest crowd to the Roseville event.  Only about 200 people were allowed into the venue, with hundreds left outside.  Although there was no violence or vandalism, the crowd was noisy and frustrated.  McTrump ended up leaving under police escort, which made him the butt of many an Internet jab in the following days.  His rebuttal:  a short speech on the House floor, clearly directed at his Roseville adversaries, in which he lamented that people insisted on "shouting at" rather than "talking to" each other, which he felt greatly eroded the democratic process.  He likened the anti-Trump (and anti-McTrump) movement to the seeds of the Confederacy, when people resisted the election of President Lincoln and ultimately rejected the Constitution. [1]

 Waiting for the Town Hall meeting to start.

Waiting for the Town Hall meeting to start.

You could say that this thing with the ponderosa pines is just nature.  The western pine beetle is native to California.  It's supposed to be here.  All this is part of a process that has been going on for millions of years; the beetles cull the unhealthy trees from the forest, and the strong live on.

Except for that in the southern Sierra Nevada, not much is living on.  On the Sierra National Forest, near where I live, up to 90 percent of mid-elevation ponderosa pine trees are dead.  This level of mortality doesn't reflect just ordinary background levels of beetle activity, but a massive outbreak.  According to University of Montana entomologist Diana Six, outbreaks happen only in a perfect storm of conditions involving warm temperatures, low tree defenses, and high productivity of beetle broods. [2]  Often, these conditions overlap.  For example, when temperatures are warm, beetles may squeeze another breeding cycle into the calendar year.  Warm temperatures may also be linked with drought, which reduces tree defenses by limiting the amount of resin that can be produced and exuded against invading beetles.  Once an outbreak is initiated, other factors can exacerbate it.  For example, while tree overcrowding doesn't cause outbreaks, it may fuel an outbreak that is already underway. [2]

In an outbreak, beetle populations spike.  In a massive outbreak, such as what is happening in the southern Sierra Nevada, beetle numbers reach levels beyond which tree defenses don't matter anymore.  When thousands of beetles attack a single tree, even the fattest, pitchiest pondo goes down.

 Photo taken by the U.S. Forest Service during an aerial survey in August 2015.  This is just up the hill from my house, and is the aerial view of the yellow forest I was running in when I took the topmost photo in this post.

Photo taken by the U.S. Forest Service during an aerial survey in August 2015.  This is just up the hill from my house, and is the aerial view of the yellow forest I was running in when I took the topmost photo in this post.

To his credit, Tom McClintock made the night about us, his constituents.  He gave the shortest of introductory speeches, borrowing heavily from the themes he'd used on the House floor after Roseville.  Then, he took questions for two straight hours.  To his discredit, he gave really shitty answers to our questions, and often didn't bother to answer at all.

The first question posed to McClintock was what he would do to protect the air and water quality of Congressional District 4.  His answer--and I have to admit, it revealed quick reflexes and a keen imagination--was that he would work to open the forests back up to logging, which would reduce the risk of wildfire, which would ensure cleaner air.  He swept the dying forest into this web, suggesting that the snags could easily kindle another catastrophic wildfire, which would "make a mockery of all of our air pollution rules."

Not long after that, a boy of about ten asked McClintock what he would do to curb global warming, so that he and the rest of his tender generation could have a future.  This could have been a grandfatherly moment for McClintock.  He could have commended the boy for his courage in speaking in front of a large, highly-charged crowd; could have sat him on his proverbial knee and told him that of course Grandpa Tom would do everything he could to make sure the planet remained inhabitable.  Instead, he told the boy we were in the midst of "a very vigorous debate on that very subject"--implying the debate was occurring among scientists, and not between scientists and wealthy climate contrarians.  Perhaps attempting to reassure the child, he said that climate change had been going on for 4 billion years, and was nothing to "wreck our economy" over.  Then, presumably because boys like dinosaurs, McClintock recalled the Jurassic Era, when the planet was far warmer than at present, and had five times the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide that we have today.  Whether his CO2 numbers are accurate is beside the point.  McClintock is a deplorable grandpa.

McClintock addressed several questions and comments about public lands.  People were concerned that he would sell off public lands, hand management of federal lands to local agencies, or both.  Here, McClintock probably felt like he had home field advantage; he is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee and chairman of the Federal Lands Subcommittee.  He listed three goals he and his colleagues had for public lands:  1) to restore public access to public lands, 2) to restore the federal government as a "good manager" of public lands, and 3) to ensure the federal government is a "good neighbor" to surrounding communities.  He threw those goals out there like lollipops, confident we'd pick them up, be delighted, and not bother ourselves with the fine print.  He moved on to the next question.

Later, at home, I picked at his three goals the way I picked at my left thumbnail all through the Town Hall.  They sounded well and good, until you stopped to think.  For starters, the idea that public access needs to be restored to public lands means that public access to such lands is currently not happening.  I live at the backdoor of the Sierra National Forest.  My neighborhood road terminates at Forest boundaries, at which point I can follow any number of dirt access roads throughout the northwestern arm of the Forest.  I find myself on National Forest lands, on average, three days of every week.  It's where I get virtually all of my exercise, where I look for birds, where I climb mountains, where I fish with my son.  In the past, as a wildlife biologist, it was even where I made my living.  Never, on the Sierra National Forest or any other National Forest I've lived near (Flathead, Willamette, Wasatch, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, and Daniel Boone), have I ever felt my access needed to be improved.

That said, my particular brand of access doesn't ask much of the Forest or my fellow Forest users.  I only need a trailhead at which to park, a pair of running shoes or hiking boots, and I'm good to go.  Nobody cares if I'm there.  Most of the time, nobody even knows I'm there; on a typical run on my local Forest Service roads, I will see not a single vehicle or human.  If my brand of access involved a couple hundred head of cattle, an ATV, a chainsaw, or an oil rig, many people would know I was there.  The forest community, too, would register my presence--sometimes to its detriment.  If I were a more resource-intensive user of public lands, I might feel that my access was limited.  But would that really be unfair?  A great number of us say no. 

McClintock's second goal of enabling the federal government to once again be a "good manager" of public lands is born of his belief, sounded at the Town Hall meeting and elsewhere, that our forests have gone unmanaged for 40 years, ever since radical leftist Richard M. Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act into being.  Since then, "forest health" (i.e. logging) projects have been stymied by burdensome environmental review obligations and court battles.  The result is--well, massive tree death, if we are to believe McClintock.  As the keynote speaker at a recent logging conference in Shasta County, McClintock told his audience that the forests of the Sierra Nevada are dying because of improper management. [3]  That's it.  No drought, no beetles, and certainly no global warming.  Restore the Forest Service's ability to log as it sees fit, and the trees will be healthy again.  

That's not to say McClintock hasn't heard of bark beetles.  For several years running, he has introduced or co-sponsored bills that purport to address insect and disease infestation.  Most recently, he introduced a bill that would allow federal agencies to skip the NEPA process to deal with infestations declared to be an emergency by the state's governor.  The agencies would get federal dollars up front for these activities, but--and here's the sneaky part--they would be obligated to repay these dollars within five years through timber sales, and said timber sales would also get to skip NEPA. [4]   

Finally, there is the matter of being a "good neighbor."  The phrase sounds innocuous enough; it puts me in mind of fresh-picked zucchini, or a friendly chat at the mailboxes.  But when it comes to federal lands, "good neighbor" is fraught with conservative ideology.  In the early 1980s, Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, unveiled a number of "good neighbor" policies to quell the Carter-era Sagebrush Rebellion, a right-wing movement in the American West to take back local control of federal lands.  Watt's "good neighbor" policies included granting, or selling on the cheap, chunks of federal land that were constraining community expansion, and allowing states to help manage federal land. [5]  Even today, such programs persist, with the Forest Service turning over certain management activities to state agencies under Good Neighbor Authority.

So, in speaking about public lands at the Mariposa Town Hall, McClintock didn't choose the most honest words.  If he had wanted to make his stance perfectly clear, he would have presented his goals as follows:  1) to ease or remove restrictions on public use of public lands, including intensive uses such as grazing and operation of off-road vehicles, 2) to ramp up logging of our National Forests and other public lands, and 3) to diminish the quantity and quality of land owned by all Americans by transferring management activities to local interests, and in some cases selling it off altogether.

 One of an estimated 100 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevadas

One of an estimated 100 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevadas

Despite the animated presence of both Sides, things never got too ugly inside Building A.  Sure, people were rude--liberals and conservatives alike.  When someone would stand too long at the microphone without reaching their point, they would invariably be yelled at, by one or more political foes, to hurry up.  People proclaiming their support of the Affordable Care Act were sometimes met with boos or cries of "Socialism!"  And McClintock got shouted at almost every time he spoke:  "Answer the question!"  "Lies!"  "Alternative facts!"  And my favorite:  "You don't even live in your own district!" Of course, McClintock, as a prevaricating politician, is fair game.

McClintock faced some tough questions.  Most he was able to spin his way out of with rhetoric replicated almost verbatim from previous speeches and statements.  Some questions, though, seemed to catch him a little off guard.  A man from the nearby town of Bootjack had visited McClintock's Twitter feed, and obtained a list of the Twitter accounts McClintock was following.  With the exception of C-SPAN, all such profiles were from the extreme right, ranging from Rush Limbaugh to a feed called "CNN Lies and is Hitler."  The man pointed out that by only consuming the media that fit his own, hard-right worldview, McClintock was not representing all his constituents.  To this, McClintock conceded that the man had a valid point.  He confessed that he did not manage his own Twitter account, but would talk to his people and have "CNN Lies and is Hitler" removed immediately.

McClintock had some classic lines, some true-blue this should be a drinking game moments.  My favorite was when he exclaimed, by way of wrapping up a short ode to Trump: "We haven't seen the likes of him since Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt!"

There was one moment during the Town Hall that frightened me.  A married couple, Jennifer and Bobby, spoke about a motorcycle accident the man had been involved in, in which he was hit by an "an “illegal alien," and had to have his leg amputated.  Both claimed the accident happened in a sanctuary city.  "They said it wasn't," the man said, "but I know better."  He was clearly angry.  "We have sanctuary cities, and a lot of Americans are getting maimed, whether you people like it or not."  When the man finished speaking, and was returning to his seat in the row behind me, a woman from my row, and my Side, asked him privately what county his accident happened in.  Her point was that it was likely not a sanctuary city--but she didn't say that out loud.  The man did not take her question well.  He stood over her in the aisle, threw his arm up in the air, and bellowed, "Are you gonna tell me I didn't get hit?"  My row sat poised, ready to stand up and defend our friend if we had to.  She was his significant elder; in her seventies, she had asked to carpool with us because she and her husband don't drive at night anymore.  Fortunately, the situation cooled, and the man took his seat.

Finally,And then there was what happened outside Building A.  When the Town Hall adjourned, four attendees walked outside to find that they'd had their tires slashed.  The tires belonged to cars and not jacked-up trucks.  The cars included a Prius and a Subaru.  I think it's safe to say what Side the perpetrators came from.  Maybe it was Colonel Quaritch; maybe it was Jennifer and Bobby, who left the meeting early.  Regardless of who held the knife, one thing is clear.  The disruptive element that Marshall Long warned about indeed materialized, and it came from within.

 The standard uniforms of the Sides--down and a battle flag--are shown here.

The standard uniforms of the Sides--down and a battle flag--are shown here.

Science really gets in the way of everything Tom McClintock says about--well, science.  What he told the loggers in Shasta County, and what he's said elsewhere, is that the forests of the Sierra Nevada are dying due to improper management.  The forests are overstocked, struggling under the weight of 266 trees per acre in a landscape designed by God to max out at one hundred.  That, in and of itself, is evidently a recipe for death.

But the ponderosa pines aren't dying because they're crowded.  The ponderosas are dying because of a massive outbreak of western pine beetles.  And that outbreak has everything to do with the thing McClintock doesn't want to talk about--climate change--and very little to do with his chosen refrain, lack of logging.  To return to the work of Dr. Diana Six and others, outbreaks happen when temperatures are warm, beetle broods are productive, and tree defenses are low.  Although the common management belief is that well-spaced trees have more resources to allocate to built-in beetle weapons like resin, field studies have yielded variable results in this regard.  A number of studies have shown lower resin production in thinned forests than in control plots. [2]

Moreover, the current body of research suggests that thinned forests have little to no advantage in outbreaks, when it really counts.  In fact, an Oregon study found that, once a beetle invasion was underway, mortality rates were sometimes higher in thinned stands than in unthinned stands. [2]

Another McClintock myth is that beetle-killed timber in the Sierra Nevada will lead to catastrophic wildfire if it is not removed.  In fact, this has been shown not to be true.  A University of Colorado-Boulder study compared fire data with beetle infestation data across western forests, and found that infested forests were not more likely to burn than their healthy counterparts.  Wildfire risk was linked to warm temperatures and drought, both of which also drive beetle infestations.  But wildfires were not born of the beetles. [6]

That brings us to the elephant in the room.  Climate change.  It's not that McClintock won't talk about it; as evidenced at the Mariposa Town Hall, he's happy to discuss climate change in the context of dinosaurs.  He would prefer not to dwell on modern climate change, however, and he certainly won't admit that it's driven by humans.  He feels the matter is still up for "vigorous debate." 

In the scientific community, the debate is over.  Ninety-seven percent or more of actively-publishing climate scientists, and most of the world's leading scientific organizations, agree that climate-warming trends over the last century are due to human activities.  As to the 3 percent, I can only assume they're like McClintock--people with vested interest in not "wrecking the economy," future generations be damned.

 Before and after - Our favorite backyard ponderosa snag, photographed in the rain just a few days before it finally fell. 

Before and after - Our favorite backyard ponderosa snag, photographed in the rain just a few days before it finally fell. 

We moved into our house at the base of the ponderosas six years ago.  Our house was built into a hill, but faces the other way, downslope across Peterson Creek and its tributaries toward Potter Ridge.  It's a house full of decks and windows.  Most of what we see is blessedly undeveloped forest--oak and bull pine, with a few scattered ponderosas, the low-elevation rear guard of their race.  When we first moved in, our viewshed took in a little huddle of ponderosa snags, four or five of them, about a hundred yards down the hill on the other side of an ephemeral creek. 

These snags weren't born of the current beetle outbreak.  When we first laid eyes on them in 2011, they were already long dead.  Perhaps they had been picked off by beetles during ordinary, non-outbreak conditions, products of the western pine beetle's own brand of forest management.  At any rate, we loved them.  They were the war zones of acorn woodpeckers, the perches of ravens and bluebirds, the nightly haunt of our local turkeys. 

The snags started to fall a few years ago, at the crux of California's drought.  Each toppling was a little blow, a piece carved out of the view we loved so much.  We are biologists, and we know the value of snags doesn't end when they fall over.  But it was hard not to feel a little sad.

Finally, just one snag remained, the tallest of them all.  It stood alone for two years, as the drought ended and Biblical rains began.  Every time we took a trip, we were sure we'd come back to find it gone.  Whenever the wind picked up, we assumed this would be it.  A leaner to begin with, the snag deepened its blow as time passed.  It could feel the ground; it just didn't know how to get there.

On February 21, the day of the Mariposa Town Hall, the leaning snag lay down.  I wasn't around to see or hear it.  Later, I registered the blank place in the sky, and looked down to see its red, broken form propped in some scrubby oaks by the creek.

It's the circle of life.  Old snags fall over, and thanks to the beetle, new snags form constantly.  The turkeys have moved into two recently-deceased ponderosas near the site of the old clan.  But I worry the circle is spinning out of control.  What will this little plot of land look like in a hundred years?  What will any place on earth look like?  Will there be ponderosa pine trees?  Turkeys?  Human beings?  It's morally reprehensible that, this many years after scientific consensus, we still have deniers running the show.

All we can do is stay the course, stay active, and stay loud.  All we can do is hope that someday, the environment will lose its political charge, and become something all Sides care for, by way of caring for ourselves.

Rebekah Jensen is a wildlife biologist by day, and a newly-minted activist and political blogger by night.  She lives at the foot of the Sierra National Forest, where she enjoys backpacking and climbing mountains with her boyfriend, son, and dog.  Yosemite, just seven miles north as the crow flies, is also nice.  Rebekah originally went to school for creative writing, and is happily dusting off her skills with her contributions to both the ICA04 blog and her own baby, 52beads@blogspot.com

Notes

[1] Tom McClintock’s February 7 speech in Congress about “what true democracy looks like”: https://mcclintock.house.gov/newsroom/speeches/what-true-democracy-looks-like

[2] Diana Six’s journal article on mountain pine beetle outbreak dynamics, and the degree to which current forest management policy reflects science:  http://www.mdpi.com/1999-4907/5/1/103/htm

[3] Newspaper article about Tom McClintock’s keynote address at the Shasta County logging conference: http://www.redding.com/story/news/local/2017/02/09/mcclintock-finds-friendly-crowd-logging-conference/97716628/

[4] HR 865, McClintock’s oft-introduced Emergency Forest Restoration Act: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/865

[5] James Watt’s Good Neighbor policies:  http://www.nytimes.com/1981/09/13/us/watt-pleasing-the-west-s-governors.html

[6] University of Colorado-Boulder study on the prevalence of wildfire in mountain pine beetle-infested forests:  http://www.colorado.edu/today/2015/03/23/study-western-forests-decimated-pine-beetles-not-more-likely-burn