Washington Winter Shades & Sun

Sunlight is special this time of year, especially near the end of the day when the shadows are long and the sunlight hits the sides instead of the tops of the buildings.

The pictures are from my walk to the Metro today. American elm trees are common around the Mall. They are their bare branches are particularly interesting this time of year.



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Gentleman of Leisure & the WAE

My Gentleman of Leisure job description included episodic work as WAE (I will include my GoL plan in the comments.) Unfortunately, by the time I got up to speed, the President froze hiring.

Now I have the opportunity as part of the “FOIA Surge,” State Department’s attempt to get through a backlog of FOIA requests, some going back years. My top secret clearance is still good for another year, so I thought I should make hay while the sun is still shining.

FOIA adjudication is one of the least favorite things I would do. On the plus side, hours are very flexible and it is not very hard. It is sort of like paying dues. I have a year long appointment. I wanted to get “on the roster.” What I really want to do is go overseas on TDY, ideally someplace where I can use my Portuguese. The thing I liked about the Foreign Service was the foreign part.

The first thing you need do to achieve any goal is to get over the wall. Once inside, you can take advantage of inside opportunities.

I also have a couple very prosaic considerations. I like to have the State ID so that I can get in to use the shower and locker room in SA 5 and get into lectures at Wilson Center w/o having to pass through the usual security. And I like to be in Washington. When it gets a little warmer, I can ride my bike. In the meantime, I walk from HST to the Metro at Federal Center SW. It is a nice walk. My pictures are from that.


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The Potential for Biotechnology to Address Forest Health

Reference page on biotechnology and forest health

Went down to the National Academies of Science today for a public meeting on biotechnology and forest health. A committee is working on a report assessing how biotechnology may address problems associated with invasive pests and climate change.

Biotechnology is not a panacea. It is only one tools we might use to address the challenges from the rapid changes unleashed invasive species, rapid climate change and habitat destruction, but I believe that w/o this tool success in dealing with these factors will be difficult or impossible.

Nature is robust and resilient, but natural selection acts over centuries or millennia. Humans have accelerated the rate of change to decades or even years. Humans created this situation. We do not have the zero option anymore of doing nothing.

Many people are uncomfortable with novel genotypes. I would prefer to avoid them if I thought there were other options. But we already have novel ecosystems that require new adaptations.

Risk and uncertainty exist. Yesterday’s solutions are often today’s problems and I don’t doubt that some of today’s solutions will be problems tomorrow. This seems a grim prognosis, but is the way of all life. It is the nature of adaptation. We are in this game whether we play or not

One of the insights of the conference was that we probably cannot expect biotechnology to be effective against particular pathogens in real time. We will always be behind the curve. But biotech might help with general health and adaptation to conditions of the non-living environments. Trees and forests suffering less stress can better fend off whatever pests attack.

My pictures are from Washington today. It was a wonderful clear day, but a little cold. Last picture is Charles Darwin. He has the prominent place in the Science Academies

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Last Day in Albuquerque

We finished our tree farm national leadership council and will be home soon. Chrissy and I did a last lunch and beer in Albuquerque. Wonderful weather. We had some drinks at La Hacienda in old down and visited the Natural History Museum.

BTW – the beer I am drinking is not really Bud Light. Who would drink that? The beer is Santa Fe IPA, a local brew.

New Mexico has a unique and diverse environment. It is rich in natural communities and geology. A docent at the museum told us that New Mexico is still a volcanic zone, although they don’t expect eruptions anytime soon. The geology is conductive to finding fossils. This is the kind of place Alex Matel would have loved. I thought of him as I posed next to the dinosaur.

“Breaking Bad,” one of CJ’s favorite TV shows, was set around Albuquerque. They take advantage of that moment of fame, as you can see in the second last picture. Last is about the largest mass extinction. All life on earth was nearly extinguished.

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La Jornada

You don’t have to go into the Albuquerque Art Museum to enjoy its holdings. A sculpture garden surrounds the building. Most interesting for me was La Jornada.

It depicts the journey of Spanish pioneers coming to New Mexico in 1598. It is very reminiscent of American pioneers moving west with a few big differences. The most obvious was the time. 1598 – that was nine years before Jamestown and twenty-two years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Another difference was the organization of the colonization. The Spanish effort was centrally directed, although financed mostly privately, and it seemed to be well-equipped. American pioneers were usually people just moving on their own, sometimes in defiance of the central authorities.

You can see what the statues look like in the photos. It is big. In addition are plaques containing the names of the colonists and origins of the colonists. Most came directly from Spain or Portugal, but others came from Mexico. Many of their descendants still live in New Mexico.

I was broadly aware of this interesting history, but visiting New Mexico has given me a lot better appreciation for the extent of the settlement.

My first two picture show the sculpture. Next is the story of the jornada. The last two are unrelated. Number 4 is St Francis and the last one is Geoffrey and Rothco. I think Rothco is the dog, but the plaque did not specify.

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Fires Bigger than Ever

Fires like the Cerro Grande fire in 2000 and the Las Conchas fire of 2011 are knocking down even fire-adapted ponderosa pine communities. The Las Conchas fire burned through more than 43,000 acres in 15 hours.   Driven by strong winds that produced horizonal vortices (like tornadoes on their sides), the fire burned about an acre every second.

There is real chance that if fires like this persist that they will permanently deforest parts of the Southwest until recently covered by thick forests, converting them into bush or grassland, as forest gaps become so big that there is no seed source for regeneration or fire-prone brush burns so hot and so frequently that forests cannot reestablish.

Ponderosa pine are fire adaptive, even fire dependent. Fires are essential to the health of ponderosa pine forests. But it can get to be too much even for them. (The ponderosa ecology is analogous to longleaf pine, but the Southeast is not like the Southwest. Fire in the Southeast can destroy much of the above ground vegetation, but plants and trees will be back within a year or two. You can see the results of a prescribed fire in Virginia at this link. In the Southwest, the ground may stay barren for a long time. )

The hot fires in fire adapted ponderosa can be driven by winds up into the spruce-fir forests on top of the mountains destroying them too. Since these ecological communities are often remnants of climates of the last ice age clinging to “sky islands,” where altitude maintains the cooler climate, they may not come back until the next ice age.

Fires have been common in the Southwest for more than 10,000 years, but there is nothing in the historical record like the fires we have experienced in recent decades. They are altering rich ecological and cultural landscapes. We can blame climate change, and warmer and drier weather are certainly contributing to the situation, but changes in land management is the proximate cause, and would trouble even absent the climate changes.

Tom Swetnam, Professor Emeritus of Dendrochronology at the University of Arizona, studies historical ecological disturbances, using tools like tree ring analysis. He spoke at our National Tree Farm Leadership Conference in Albuquerque.  Using tree rings, scientists have mapped the changing climate and conditions in the Southwest with decent precision going back more than 400 years and make decent estimates farther back.

The tree rings tell a story of wet and dry years and fires that go with them.  Not surprisingly, fires are more common in dry years, but fire scars indicate that centuries ago fires were frequent but not very hot. The record of the area around the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico experienced frequent low-intensity burns until around 1680. After that, fires become less frequent but hotter. This fire regime persists until just before 1900, when fires are almost gone, until the serious upsurge a few decades ago. What happened?

The tree ring record fits well with the historical record if you know what was going on. Around 1600 Pueblo people lived in the mountains and on the plateaus, i.e. in the forests. They set fires to clear land, improve hunting or discourage insects, and sometimes cooking and campfires got out of hand. The Pueblo also used wood gathered from the nearby woods for fuel and building materials. They especially used small diameter wood for ramadas and roofs. In other words, they kept the woods clear of fuel that would drive large fires. The ponderosa pine forests of those days were open. We would call them park-like, with as few as twenty large trees per acre. When fires went through, they stayed on the ground, doing little hard to big trees, but conveniently marking them for our future study.

Spanish colonist and missionaries started showing up in growing numbers after 1600. This started to pull or drive some of the Pueblo out of their mountain homes. Others died of introduced diseases and later started to be the victims of raids by tribes made mobile by the newly introduced horses. No matter the reasons, the human population of the New Mexico mountains declined and so did the health of the forests. Fire became less common and more often ignited by lightning, but they were bigger and hotter.

(Nature does not always do better w/o human intervention. That is controversial, and it is my thought. I cannot attribute it to Mr. Swetnam. There is a dynamic balance to be struck.)

This less frequent but still common low-intensity fire regime continued until the late 1800s. That is when fire disappeared for around a century. We would be wrong to credit or blame fire suppression for most of this. It is true that settlers tended to put out fires and that roads and cultivated fields functioned as fire-breaks, but the big factor from around 1890-1945 was grazing. Sheep and cows grazed down the grass and w/o the grass to carry the fire, fires just did not get going.  After 1945, fire suppression became a bigger deal. Suppression was enabled by technologies and techniques developed during World War II. Aircraft could stop and fight fires even in remote regions. They could also parachute in fire fighters and general organization and discipline appropriate to the exigencies of war translated from fighting war to fighting fire. In fact, the Forest Service and others approached the fight against fire with warlike vigor and metaphors.

And it seemed to work. Fires were suppressed most of the time.  Trees grew thicker than ever and that seemed a good thing. Managing forests like a factory fit in well with organizational theories of the time. But fuels were building. Fire can be avoided and postponed but not banished.

This brought us to where we are today. Western forests are overgrown with trees and brush. We have come to see this as natural, but it is not.  In a robust ponderosa forest, there are big trees and not much else near the ground. Over the last century, brush grew and wood lays on the ground. Beyond that, there are lots of trees of various heights.  This provides ladders to pull fire from the ground to the canopy, where whole trees, even big ones are killed. This sets up a negative cycle, where the hot fires kill the big trees, allowing brush to grow in thick fueling other hot fires.

Managing this flammable situation is exacerbated by people moving into the woods and building homes, sometimes expensive ones, that need to be protected against the old nemesis of fire.

This is often called the Wildland-Urban Interface or the WUI (pronounced WOOEE). Most forest fire managers dislike WUI because it complicates their burn management and risks the lives of civilians and firefighters.

Swetnam, however, thinks that people can live in harmony in the woods, IF they do it right. The Pueblo lived in these fire-prone woods for hundreds of years. Their villages seem never to have been overtaken by fire. Their success depended on managing fuels, as described above.  The Pueblo also practiced seasonal movement. During the winter, they hunkered down in central areas, but in summer they dispersed around the countryside.  The result was fuel management, whether that was the goal.

The good news is that we can manage fire. If we recognize that we cannot banish fire, we can manage it.  We can build in lots of places but not in all places.  The bad news is that it is hard politically and socially to do the right thing even when we are reasonably sure we know the right thing. We will also almost always lack the public resources to do all that we can or should.

Above are notes and thoughts from todays Tree Farm National Leadership Conference and speaker Tom Swetnam.

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Walkabout in Albuquerque

Chrissy and I went walkabout in Albuquerque old town this morning. It does not cover very much territory & not much was open in the morning. We had breakfast at Monica El Portal. It was good basic food. I had huevos rancheros; Chrissy had a breakfast taco.

The next picture shows Chrissy at the gate to old town and next at the statue at the end of old town and me with on of the statues at the art museum. Last is the restaurant where we had supper. The big moon is lighting the way

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Valle Grande

Valle Grande is a big grassy valley in remains of a caldera of a super volcano. You can see various views in my first three pictures. The last picture is Frijoles Canyon taken from one of the Pueblo dwelling in the cliff. See my earlier posts re.

Visiting the Pueblo ruins at Bandelier National Monument. I always enjoy seeing the remains of the past. It is interesting what people could do with simple tools. But you wouldn’t want to live in these places. The little cave in the picture was interesting, but then I thought about really living there.

Pre-literate, prehistoric societies are fragile. Oral history is always unreliable. (Well,so is written history, but at least you have a reference.) We sometimes overlook one of the biggest problems with lack of literacy. That is, things get lost.

One generation might develop wonderful skills or knowledge, but if nobody transmits it to the next generation, it is lost forever. Nobody can find the old text and create a renaissance.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and if a link is missing, there is no chain.

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A study of history at Bandelier National Monument

“We live in a continuum that began when we emerged from the earth and continues with our descendants. That is why time has no boundaries for us & why it is so irrelevant. We are not here to make history. We are here to live and continue history.” This is from the Affiliated Pueblo Committee and sums up their view of history. I read it at the museum at the Bandolier National Monument.

I studied history and anthropology in college and especially enjoyed the classes on theories of history. We contrasted cyclical theories of history, where history repeated in great circles to a progressive theory of history, where history was moving forward. The latter implied a beginning and an end, while the former just churned. The progressive view of history tended to be favored by adherents of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), since they were informed by their faiths that God created the heavens & the earth at a specific time in history, that at least some humans had duties and tasks to perform and that history was moving toward an end and a day of judgement. The ancient Greek historians were examples of believers in cyclical historical theories.

All Western historians, however, shared the idea of change and development, whether or not they thought there was progress toward an end. In fact, one of the definitions of history was that it was written by historians who analyzed trends and change. Absent this, we might have antiquarianism or chronicles that just recorded events, one darn thing after another. That is why we called Herodotus the “father of history.” Others had written before he did, but they did not look for patterns, trends or change.

Our history theory classes back in the 1970s were still very Western-centric. We did not consider Chinese, Indian or other perceptions of history. Had we done that, I don’t think we would have found them that surprising. My subsequent study of history indicates that Chinese history theory, for example, would fit mostly into the cyclical pattern, with good times followed by bad and the mandate of heaven falling moving but not changing. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but what I see I can fit into my earlier studies.

Very different would be the theory of history outlined in the Pueblo theory above. It is not a progression view of history or even a change one. Rather it is a kind of steady state, timelessness.

I mentioned that I studied history AND anthropology. One of the books assigned in anthropology was called “Language Thought & Reality” by Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf postulated that structure of language influenced perceptions of reality. Some scholars think this idea has been debunked and others think the debunkers have been debunked. I don’t know about that, but I do recall that he used the Hopi language as an example. He said that the structure of the Hopi language made it much easier to view time as a continuum. Western languages, on the other hand, were structured with various past and future tenses. Maybe that influenced our view of history as having a past and a likely future and featuring changed

The Pueblo idea made me think about this. I can see value in this way of thinking, but also many drawbacks. It is contemplative and that is good.

I have been thinking about the Pueblo settlements, as I visited some of the ancient sites. Yesterday went to the Pecos villages. Today we visited the ruins of villages of Ancestral Pueblo people who built homes in Frijoles Canyon at the Bandolier National Monument. They lived in the canyon for around 400 years until they exhausted the resources and abandoned the land by about 1550.

My first picture shows Chrissy with a piece of Tuff. That is compressed volcanic ash that the ancestral Pueblo used for building material. The other pictures show runs and the hills of tuff at the Bandolier National Monument.

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Ponderosa Pine in New Mexico

Ponderosa pine is certainly one of my favorite ecosystems. It can and sometimes does grow in lowlands, but it dominates the “montane” ecosystem, in this part of New Mexico from elevations of around 7000 feet to about 8000 feet above sea level.

It is a semi-dry ecology that tends to burn. Before European settlement, ponderosa pine forests burned every 5-15 years. These were usually low intensity fires that cleared up the brush and thinned the forest but did not harm to the big trees. This changed when settlers cut trees and then excluded fire. The ponderosa pine grew back much thicker than before. Where there previously were as few as 20 big trees per acre, there were now 600-700 little trees too close together. Fire was excluded as much as possible, but when it inevitably did come, it came hot because of all the fuel and the tight forest. The fires were hot enough to kill mature trees.

This is where we find ourselves now. Our forests are too thick and too prone to disastrous fire because we have refused to thin properly and tried to exclude fire for 100 years. It is not easy just to change these old policies. We run risks during the changeover. One of the most destructive fires in the Bandelier NM (where we were travelling) was the Cerro Grande fire in 2000. This was set by the Forest Service trying to set a prescribed fire.

The guys who did it were acting responsibly and with the best science available, but they took the blame. One reason why fire professionals call the fires they set “prescribed” and not “controlled burn,” as some outsiders do, is because they know that no fire is ever 100% controlled. It takes courage to do the right thing. If things go wrong, you will get all the blame. If things go right, you will get none of the credit. It is well worth the risk from ecological and economic point of view. I would compare it to an operation. In my example, if you do nothing you have a 95% chance of death and a 5% chance of survival. With the operation you have a 95% survival chance to live and a 5% chance of death. You would take that risk, right? But that 5%.

Fire cannot be avoided. Forests will burn. We can do our best to choose the time and place where destruction will be minimized and where ecological benefits will be greatest. If we do nothing, we still get fires, but we almost always get them at the worst and most dangerous times, since those are the times of greatest fire activity, and the ecology will be harmed by the hot fires.

My pictures are from the Bandelier National Monument. My first photo is me in front of the sign talking about the need for diversity in the ecosystems. Next are some big ponderosa pines. You can tell an old tree not only by its size but also the color of the bark. Young trees have dark bark. When they get to be 100+ they start having a orange-yellow bark. In the third picture, you can see the black marks from a fire, probably the 2011 Las Conchas fire. The big trees were unharmed by the fire, but it cleaned out the brush. After that show when a very hot fire goes through. I think that is aftermath of the disastrous Cerra Grande fire of 2000. This is so different from Virginia. After 17 years, we would have profuse growth, even from a hot fire like that. We get a lot more rain. The last picture are spruce with a few ponderosa pine at higher altitude. Spruce are not adapted to frequent fires the way ponderosa are.

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