Sunday, December 21, 2008

Big Bend Country

Sunrise in the desert after a frigid night.

The Santa Elena canyon from the north. The Rio Grande makes a dramatic exit, turning sharply to the east (left) in the beginning of the "Big Bend."

The canyon is about 1500 feet deep, with sheer sandstone walls.

Looking north into the desert as the Rio Grande changes course.

Tom does Clint by a silty bank.

The sandstone dips quite sharply in the opposite direction from the river's flow, creating the illusion that the water flows steeply but smoothly downhill. We could only walk about a half mile into the canyon before the banks ran out.

The Chisos Range framed by the canyon walls.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Two more days in the Chisos

Juniper Creek Canyon.

The South Rim.

Casualty of the wind.

A perfectly flagged tree.

The Boot, with the Sierra del Carmen and Mexico in the distance.

Though December, the trees in the High Chisos were still changing. Texas does have a few pockets of autumn color.

This javelina and his companion were all too familiar with our campsite.

My companion, Tom Barnett, and a post-hike treat. Tom promptly retreated into his tent for a nap.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change in the Zealand Valley

It’s almost fifteen years since I began hiking seriously in the Whites (I took a bit of flak at summer camp for reading the White Mountain Guide during rest hour), but I am only beginning to understand how dynamic the landscape is. Humans are naturally inclined to consider nature in stasis; our life spans are too short to comprehend the immensity of geological time spans or even, too often, the pace of ecological change.

While many environmentalists have recognized this concept, the tipping point for awareness among northeastern outdoor enthusiasts may have come with the book Reading the Forested Landscape by Antioch University’s Tom Wessels. Using examples from northern New England woodlands, Wessels shows how a keen observer with only a passing knowledge of ecology can deduce landscape history by interpreting visual clues.

One of Wessel’s former students, Alex MacPhail is an OH (Old Hutsman) and a White Mountain native. Alex, now in his fifties, started working in the huts at a teen, and he has stayed involved in various capacities since then. I first got to know him as a tireless plotter of Pemi Loops (a grueling thirty-some mile circuit of the Franconia, Twin, and Bond ranges) when I worked at Galehead, and he came in to visit us at Zealand very often this summer. I chronicled our escapade on Whitewall Mountain in August.

Alex’s ecological knowledge is more than passing, and he has combed the Pemigewasset and particularly the Zealand Valley for decades. This is the kind of perspective that is invaluable to ecological insights, so I am thrilled that he has started White Mountain Sojourn, a new blog to record some of his observations. And indeed, he includes is a potpourri of other interesting items, including a record of encounters with the Presence.

A couple months ago, Alex sent me a picture of Zealand Falls Hut from 1969, posted at the beginning of the piece. I gave many a talk on the history of the Zealand Valley this summer, but I am still amazed by the changes in the hut and its surroundings since those days. Contrast 1989 photo with this modern shot, and observe the expansion of the hut building. Indeed, the recent photo was taken a dozen or so feet in front of the old one because the brush has grown up so high in the meantime. What was an open view to Zealand Falls is now obscured by Balsam Fir.

Change is a constant rule of existence. To forget it is a fundamentally human hubris.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

What is a mountain?

I am often frustrated, especially when talking to Westerners, who wield their magnificent Rockies, Cascades, and Sierras, by the difficulty of explaining that the Whites are indeed rugged and dangerous. The number of fatalities on Mt. Washington is a useful number to quote in such discussions.

Larry Price, a Mountain Geoecologist, lists three criteria in identifying high mountain landscapes. “High mountains should rise above the Pleistocene snow line, the zone of rugged and serrated topography associated with mountain glaciers and frost action; high mountains should extend above the regional treeline; high mountains should display cryonival processes such as frost-heaving and solifluction.” By this measure, the Whites qualify as high mountains—barely. The Presidentials exhibit various features formed by mountain glaciers, including the eastern ravines and an arĂȘte or two, while the alpine zone is notable, if small. Soil stripes are present, even if confined to tiny Monroe Flats.

I am reminded of a quote in Forest and Crag, Guy and Laura Waterman's wonderful history of hiking in the northeast. "Ferocious weather attacks these alpine zones, especially in winter. Winds elsewhere regarded as hurricane force are routine in these alpine zones...Taken with cold temperatures, frequent low visibility due to clouds and blowing snow, plus erratic changeability, Northeastern winter weather more than makes up for the region's lack of high elevation or consistent dramatic relief."

Washington, of course, is the site of the highest wind speed ever recorded. I’ve never gotten caught in wind over 100 mph, but I have felt some pretty strong breezes. This summer, when I was visiting Hilary Gerardi and her croo up at Greenleaf, our plans for a long day hike were ruined by the gale. We did notice, while devouring the latest adventures of The Pirates!, the steady increase of the peak gust on the Davis monitor. The anabatic wind, blowing up from the south, was funneled up the ravine encircled by Agony Ridge on the west side of Greenleaf, peaking in the tiny notch between the hut and the summit ridge; Eagle Lake, in the middle, was in a fury.

After trying our hand at drinking glasses of water in the wind, Hilary and I headed up the ridge to scout out conditions on the summit. The higher we went, the more the wind subsided, which was disappointing but made sense because Agony Ridge no longer constrained the air molecules. At the summit, a straggle of thru-hikers emerged out of the fog, looking vaguely hypothermic, though they were still energetic enough to badmouth the huts and assert the advisability of camping illegally. With little to see and peeing into the wind getting old, we headed down. It is one of the huts’ greatest luxuries that its inhabitants can habituate themselves to these initially fearsome conditions, and as Guy Waterman observed, such conditioning is one of the great joys of living in the mountains.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Thoughts from a kinda-sorta-ex-hut kid

This piece is written by Beth Weick, currently the rotating caretaker in the Eastern Pemigewasett and a former Lakes of the Clouds Hutmaster.

For those who don’t know me or would feign not to, I’m writing this as a shelters caretaker. A new and different gig for me, and one that generates all manner of comparisons to the huts, however unfair and non-judicious that may be.

So. Guests. In shelters, we call them visitors, but we all know to whom we are referring. Those folks who come up from near and far to traipse about these White Mountains. Too many are foolhardy and stubborn, from Boston; many are also foreigners who don’t speak the language…from Quebec; and then there are the others who are from the far corners of our country, and abroad.

Let me tell you: you want your hutguests to be as inadequate as they are. Yes, guests—“goofers,” if you must—are the source of complaints, stories, expletives, frustrations, and burgeoning alcoholics. But that’s the point. Without miserably incompetent hikers, half the hutkid repertoire is gone.

In shelters, I daily interact with folks who can shoulder fairly well-packed packs, follow a map, feed themselves, entertain themselves, and infer from the rain that the weather is bad. They know that moose don’t become reindeer after age 10, they know the alpine zone wasn’t built by cutting down the trees, and they can distinguish between a wind generator and fighting mountain lions.

Boring. Not only do I have no one to complain with, I have little to complain about. Imagine what this would do to a hut.

1) You’d never miss a drinking opportunity due to late night “guided hikes.”
2) You could have meat, bread, and peanuts in every meal without hysterics and epi-pens to boot.
3) “Excuse me, sir” and “please, ma’am” would never imply “get the f*** out of my kitchen.”
4) You’d never revert to Borat-isms in a fruitless attempt to communicate with the ceaseless French-Canadians.
5) You’d never ruin a sunset moment with stock-option conversations or unsupervised rascals picking up the wilderness.
6) The tip jar would be $100 lighter because people could carry their own packs, or find their own family, or not break their ankle.

Moral of the story? Medicocrity, nay, failing at even mediocrity is never as fun to witness as in our “high mountain destinations. May guests live on as goofers in our huts, and may their obliviousness always hide them from it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bushwhacking Whitewall Mountain

It has been a wet summer, and my hiking, like my writing on this blog, has amounted to less than I had wished. Nonetheless, I was inspired to bushwhack Whitewall Mountain a couple of weeks ago, accompanied by the intrepid old hutsman Alex MacPhail (or Macfool, as they called him when he worked in the huts).

Whitewall sits directly across the notch from Zealand Falls Hut, and its white cliffs provide a striking foreground to our view south through the notch. It was first named for an obscure local woodsman, but after one of JE Henry’s immense fires scorched the area so severely that the soil was incinerated down to the rock, it was renamed for the scars that endure, though much diminished, to this day.

As we did the bushwhack on a pack day, I had little time to spare. Shortly after breakfast, we descended the doozy and plunged into the brush immediately opposite the junction of the Ethan Pond and Zealand Trails. This way, we minimized the angle of our ascent and avoided any contact with the slides or cliffs, but we did ensure that once atop the main ridge opposite the hut, we would have to walk farther to reach the ledges on the south side of the summit. Indeed, while the initial slope was easy, the ridge proved overgrown.

Alex, who holds the record for the hut traverse (twelve hours) and once hiked (sprinted?) from Lakes of the Clouds to Zealand in 2:10, pointed out that the vegetation has changed since he roamed the ridge in the sixties. Apparently, there are many more balsam fir, and the forest has grown up considerably. While we encountered many beautiful birch glades, shining white as well emerald green thanks to the damp hobblebush, the going was generally slow through the spruce-fir forest.

The glades were full of moose scat, and we found many flattened ferns that had been used as bedding. Unfortunately, we did not encounter any megafauna, nor did we find evidence of a rumored “antler grove,” but we did find plenty of bear scat and a semi-alpine bog. At one point, I wandered off, nearly losing Alex in the process, to examine some largish trees in the distance—some of them were approximately ten inches in diameter, so they may be survivors from the pre-Henry days.

Eventually, we crested the summit and found some outcroppings of bedrock. After some more scratching and clawing, we emerged onto the ledges themselves, which have superb views over the heart of the Pemigewasset, including Carrigain—“the prince of the wilderness,” according to Professor Charles Fay, one of the AMC’s founders—the Hancocks, and the Bonds, in addition to the splendid forests in-between. While the mist obscured more distant peaks, it added an ethereal dimension to what mountains and valleys we could see.

The ledges themselves were of interest, as well. Some of the more sheltered crevices were blackened, evidently from the fires of a century ago. There was a Z shaped from rocks on the ground, presumably the handiwork of a past Zealand croo, as well as some rocks my own croomate Nick Anderson had left earlier in the season.

Before heading down, Alex wanted to check out a gully that runs from the ledges to the Ethan Pond Trail, about a thousand feet below in the notch. Given the night’s rain and the instability of the rocks, we had chosen not to ascend this way, but a closer look convinced me to try going down this way, especially as I still needed to pack. Alex declined and returned the way we came, more or less.

His was probably the right decision. The couloir drops between two cliffs, and there are some very large, very loose chunks of rock that need extremely careful negotiation. After observing just how fast and hard several shot down the slope and smelling pulverized rock in the air, I slithered into the brush on the side of the slide and avoided treading on rocks as best as I could.

After several hundred feet, the gully emerges beneath the cliffs, and the entire mountainside becomes a sea of scree and boulders. This section is slightly less steep, so I descended much more quickly and easily, feeling a palpable sense of relief. At the bottom, the steadiness of the Ethan Pond Trail was exceptionally welcome.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Zealand Falls Hut and its situation

Six days into our summer, the Zealand Falls Hut croo has yet to hit the trail, due to time spent opening the hut and, more recently, poor weather. Beyond a Mountain Classroom group that spent a couple of nights, we’ve barely had any guests and are spending most of our time in the croo room above the kitchen, reading, eating, and sleeping.

Only 2.5 miles from an access road, Zealand is the most accessible of the huts, and its situation, though not as dramatic as Galehead’s, is beautiful and interesting. Directly to the south is Zealand Notch, which leads into the vast (for New Hampshire) Pemigewasset Wilderness, where I spent many weeks doing trail maintenance while a teenager at camp. On a clear day, you can see from our porch through the notch to Mt. Carrigain, a massive, lonely peak. Its fire tower, no longer in use, has the most wild and inspiring views in the Whites, at least to my eyes.

The rock around here is mostly Conway granite, which possesses a distinctive white hue due to its high content of orthoclase feldspar. About 200 million years ago, Pangaea, the “original” supercontinent split apart, causing volcanism and a great deal of magma to swirl towards the earth’s surface. Some of it cooled underground, which meant that it hardened slowly into large crystals. This, of course, is a distinctive trait of granite.

Runoff has gradually but steadily eroded the old rock formations so that the granite, originally buried, is now exposed in many places. Various ice ages and their associated periods of glaciation have also left their mark. 50,000 years ago, continental ice sheets up to a mile thick extended across this entire region. The rock around Zealand Notch was probably already weak from streamflow, but the glaciers carved the pass into its distinctive U-shape as they moved southward.

The east side of the notch is highly eroded. In fact, Whitewall Mountain, as it is named, gets its moniker from the crumbling Conway Granite on its flank. The trail through the notch is clearly visible through the fallen rock; it is remarkably straight and wide, which betrays its origin. The region around Zealand was extensively logged between 1880 and 1897 by the notorious JE Henry, who later moved his operation to Lincoln, from which he ransacked the southern Pemigewasset.

Henry based his operation at the junction of what is now the Zealand Road and Route 302, where he built a company town named Zealand. From here, he extended his railway south, eventually extending through the notch. The sites of his logging camps are hard to pin down, but I am told the remains of an old locomotive are strewn about at the bottom of the notch. Henry’s engines were wood-fired, which proved disastrous because they threw off so many sparks. Given the amount of “slash,” debris leftover from the logging operation, it was inevitable that fire should break out. Two enormous fires, in 1886 and 1903, burned thousands of acres in the valley. More importantly for Henry, a fire in 1897 consumed the town of Zealand, which spurred him to move the business to Lincoln. Apparently the lesson he took from the experience was to exclusively employ clearcutting rather than leave valuable timber to be consumed by fire.

In any case, one of the fires that swept through the notch was so intense that it burned up all the organic material in some places, leaving nothing but bedrock. The slope is steep enough that no soil has accumulated in the years since.

The hut gets its name from the waterfall within earshot to the south. While this brook empties through the notch, there are a pair of beaver ponds to the north which serve as the headwaters of the Zealand River. While the beavers move around from year to year, they have a dramatic affect on the landscape of the valley. Apparently the rushing sound of water motivates them to gnaw trees, though I would love to know how exactly researchers proved this point. Beavers are much more mobile in the water, which is why they construct dams, and they feed on the twigs and shoots of the trees they fell. They are a primary source of disturbance in valley ecosystems, infusing their pond areas with new growth and attracting animals that feed on pond vegetation such as moose.

Just above the ponds, across the notch from the hut, the crown damage on white birch is plainly visible. Many birch were severely damaged during an ice storm that hit New England about ten years ago. While they weren’t necessarily killed outright, trees suffered many broken limbs, allowing parasites access to their interior. Disease is now finishing off many survivors. Additionally, birch, being a pioneer species, colonized the area after the logging and fires of the Henry era. A century on, they are now being replaced by slow-growing, shade tolerant species such as balsam fir.

Evidently, the Zealand Notch area is subject to a variety of influences—ecological, meteorological, geological, and human. While it is typically human to exclaim over the changes in landscape we last observed it, we forget the dynamism of the forces affecting the exterior of the planet.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A different perspective on the grains "crisis"

The media has lately seized upon rising food prices. The story is simple: Congress mandated a huge increase in biofuels production, spurring competition for various crops, particularly corn. The New York Times has run a series of articles on the ill effects, which include famine in developing countries, less conservation as farmers plant corn rather than leave land fallow, and bankruptcy for producers in the dairy, chicken, pork, and beef sectors. Indeed, the sustained growth in certified organic land may even be reversed because farmers can achieve comparable profit margins if they stay conventional and forgo the bother and cost of certification.

I don’t agree with the general consternation—in fact, I think the corn shortage has some silver linings for the US and the world. The memory of the crisis cheerleaders is stupendously short. Only three summers ago, the mainstream had its knickers in a twist over a corn glut. The Times' story on this faux problem included this arresting picture of a rotting pile of corn the size of a football field, too large to cover with a tarp.

Why might high corn prices be good? First of all, the US has long used its cheap commodity crops to undercut foreign producers. In the worst instances, the US donates “free” grain on a flimsy pretext. For instance, grain farmers in Ethiopia can’t make a profit if their consumers receive “free” American corn donated to prevent “famine.” Our Midwestern breadbasket is also used to justify Neoliberal reforms—if developing countries can count on cheap grain imports, it makes no sense to develop a broad base of domestic agriculture. Instead, they pursue a comparative advantage via crops such as coffee or cacao, but dependence on fickle foreign markets ultimately increases an economy’s fragility. Without competition from US grain imports, foreign grain farmers will thrive, although the immediate shortages are tough.

While it's similarly difficult for farmers and ranchers who are driven out of business, Americans could use a dose of reality regarding their consumption of these products. Meat, milk, and cheese are unhealthy in a Western diet unless consumed in small portions, but pocketbook rather than nutritional arguments are most likely to be convincing. Furthermore, these sectors of agriculture are horribly inefficient—ruminants consume enormous amounts of grain, so if the number of bovines decreases, the pressure on the grain supply will gradually ease, causing prices to fall.

Meanwhile, the high price of corn provides a compelling reason to do away with the unnecessary and wasteful agricultural subsidies that encourage overproduction. As for the possible decline in organic certification and farmland conservation programs, this will be more than offset if price increases provide an incentive for Americans to eat more healthily overall. It makes ever more sense to eat locally and organically (whether certified or not) to escape the costs of transport and artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

Indeed, in my own research area—cattle ranching—the best way to avoid buying grain is to increase the amount of time an animal spends on pasture. While grass fed methods do nothing to better chances of “organic” certification in the eyes of the USDA, they make raising cattle less expensive and, if the cattle are rotated responsibly, they are better for the land than conventional methods. Moreover, the beef is healthier.

I do not want to leave the impression that I think the biofuels mandate was a good idea. The latest research shows that burning ethanol actually releases more greenhouse gases than burning gasoline. Is this actually surprising to anyone? You don’t need to be a chemist to figure out that carbon consumption of any type is going to release carbon dioxide as a byproduct, and anyone who has sat by a fire, whether fueled by wood or cornstalks, should know that the result is dirty. Greenhouse gas emissions won’t decrease unless we harness truly alternative power sources (wind and solar) for our engines or we truly forgo using them.

Similarly, the fact that Congress passed the biofuels bill is hardly surprising. Farm state Senators control agricultural policy, and the Farm Bill is all about paying farmers to produce crops we don’t need more of. They need to dispose of “corn gluts” to justify their payments, which is why the US donates so heavily to the World Hunger Program, and why High Fructose Corn Syrup, which sweetens nearly a quarter of the products sold by an average American supermarket, was invented. These Senators are remarkably effective because they support projects championed by non-agricultural Senators, as long as they get their way on the Farm bill.

Although corn prices are the highest they have been in decades, talk of reforming Farm Bill subsidies, which will be renewed this summer, has died almost entirely. The biggest opponent of the subsidies is (surprise!) President Bush, but since environmental groups refuse to work with him and the farm bill doesn’t have the cachet of illegal immigration in the red states, he’s unwilling to put his neck on the line by really fighting them.

Changes in supply are a natural feature of our economy, but coverage tends to focus on the negatives (the same goes for global warming). The winners will be those who can adapt the quickest to the higher prices of corn and other grains. In the meantime, observers should strive for a nuanced perspective of events in the hope that we can use the new pressures to achieve a more sustainable economy.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Were it not for the many other geological spectacles around Four Corners, Shiprock might be as famous as Devil’s Tower. Indeed, they are both remnants of ancient volcanos. Composed of breccia and other igneous rocks, Shiprock originally formed the volcano’s throat, several thousand feet underground, but in the 27 million years since inception, erosion has exposed the remnant.

Shiprock rises nearly 2,000 feet above the plain, and it is visible for scores of miles. Early Anglo pioneers thought it resembled a Yankee clipper ship. Last week, my old friend Sam Sweet and I approached from the north, first glimpsing it just after passing into New Mexico from Colorado. None but the hardiest grasses survive the arid conditions of the surrounding plains. Shiprock sits in the middle of a vast Navajo reservation that, to quote Robert Spurlock, is basically a third-world country sitting in the middle of the southwest. A town named for Shiprock lies fifteen or so miles from the formation; there was no sign of employment beyond service and government jobs. Power lines, apparently routing electricity from the turbines along the Colorado River to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, crisscross the vast expanse of the reservation. I never once caught a glimpse of cattle, which are ubiquitous elsewhere in the arid southwestern landscape.

Navajo legend tells that a village once occupied the top of Shiprock (Tse Bit’a’i to the Navajo), whose inhabitants cultivated the fields below. Lightning sheered off the trail leading to the bottom, leaving only a cliff and forcing the village to starve. The Navajo now forbid the rock’s ascent. Oddly, David Brower, later of Sierra Club fame, led the first recorded climb of Shiprock.

Highway 491 provides a constant vista of the peak, however, so we did not offend any resting spirits. Our Rough Guide, which contained a priceless section on “Traveling in Indian Country,” urges travelers to avoid making eye contact or being overtly friendly, as the natives apparently do not understand such paleface behavior.

Briefly disembarking to absorb Shiprock’s grandeur in the open air, I was struck by the trail of broken bottles along the road’s shoulder. Highway 491, nicknamed the Devil’s Highway, actually used to be 666 (the sixth spur of old Highway 66), until Bill Richardson and the New Mexican Congress changed it in 2003 to avoid “the mark of the beast.” Within the Navajo section of the road, a succession of fatal accidents led some to believe the road curse. Alcoholism is responsible for most of these deaths, however. Highway 491 is a road I would hesitate to drive at night—Shiprock is a massive, unearthly presence, and the image of headlights swerving head-on into my lane persists.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A bee in the organic bonnet

This rather dry piece is part of my Masters Thesis, but I did most of the research for my undergrad thesis. All of the pictures are from southwestern Wisconsin, fall 2005.

The organic dairy world is one of the most important sectors of the organic industry as a whole. In 2003, its sales totaled $1.4 billion. People seem to associate milk with health and childhood, which perhaps convinces them to accept premiums for organic milk. Indeed, in the 1990s, the organic dairying grew the fastest of any sector of the organic industry (Greene, 2001).

The National Organic Programs (NOP) rules governing organic dairy cattle mention access to pasture, but they do not specify what access entails. Thus it is possible to feed dairy cattle organic grain while confining them on large dairy farms, sometimes called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The debate over what access entails has played out in the competition between the two of the largest organic dairy operations in the country—Horizon Organics and Organic Valley—which approach organic milk production in markedly different ways.

Both companies were founded as cooperatives around the same time—Organic Valley in 1988, Horizon in 1992—and both were originally located in rural Wisconsin. Their rise roughly mirrored the explosion of the entire organic industry. After initial difficulty in finding their market niche, both companies settled on dairy products. However, while Organic Valley continued as a cooperative, buying milk only from member farms, Horizon, while continuing to purchase from its member farms, also bought its own large dairy farm in Idaho in 1994, which holds 8,000 cows, followed in 1997 by another in eastern Maryland, which houses a comparable number (Brady, 2006). Growth continued, and in 2003, as major food corporations began taking notice of the growing profits in the organic sector, Dean Foods purchased Horizon—now based in Boulder, Colorado—for $216 million (Pressler, 2003). Presently, the subsidiary works with 515 farms, and according to its website, 80% of its milk comes from members rather than its own operations in Idaho and Maryland (, 2008).

Nonetheless, Horizon has received considerable criticism from consumers groups. The Organic Consumers Association is leading a boycott of Horizon (as well as Aurora Organic, supplier to Wal-Mart, Safeway, Costco, and Target) because of the lack of access to pasture for cows on the large dairy farms. Logistically, bringing several thousand cows out to pasture is a daunting challenge when the cows also need to be milked twice daily. Practically, this means that the cows generally see pasture for two to three months per year, at the end of their lactation cycle. Since the USDA organic standards are vague, such conditions are legal as long as the cows are fed organic grains. The abundance of fecal waste and irrigation at large dairy farms—the Idaho farm was essentially created out of a desert—are also cited as reasons for the boycott (Brady, 2006). While major supermarket chains have not dropped Horizon or Aurora, the OCA has made some headway among natural food stores and coops.

Organic Valley, a giant in its own right with over 1300 member farms, has pursued a less controversial but also less lucrative strategy, at least in the short term. While diversifying into citrus and meat production, it has resisted using large dairy farms, however, instead relying entirely on small producers. Such a strategy has thus far proved healthy for the cooperative’s image, but the limits to supply come at a price.

In 2004, Organic Valley’s third largest customer was Wal-Mart. Executives at Organic Valley credit Wal-Mart with improving the cooperative’s efficiency and timing. Nonetheless, when a case of Mad Cow Disease was found in Washington State in 2004, consumers began switching to organic milk in such droves that the demand quickly outstripped supply. A shortage in organic grain for feed exacerbated the problem. Organic Valley was forced to shortchange its smaller customers in favor of Wal-Mart. The specter of competition with Horizon Organic, which was selling milk at 15 cents less per gallon than Organic Valley, convinced Organic Valley executives to drop the Wal-Mart account, despite the fact that the giant retailer had not asked for a price cut. Instead, Organic Valley focused on supplying its natural food store and co-op customers, avoiding vulnerability by maintaining a diverse set of clients. Though in 2006 Horizon sold $339 million worth of milk to Organic Valley’s $232 million, Organic Valley’s business with small distributors is growing. It is betting that the innovative nature of these businesses and the awareness of its consumers will endow it with long-term viability (Pattison, 2007).

Meanwhile, the bad publicity from the OCA boycott is beginning to take effect. Like Horizon, Aurora owns a pair of large dairy farms in Colorado, which separately hold 4,000 and 3,200 cows, and one in Texas, with 3,300 cows. When John Mackey, the vegan chief executive of Whole Foods visited the smaller of the two Colorado facilities, he deemed its conditions poor enough to preclude his grocery chain from carrying Aurora milk (Warner, 2006). Under threat of losing its organic certification, Aurora agreed with the USDA to decrease its herd size and buy more pasture, but it now faces several class action lawsuits (Martin, 2007). Horizon has not generated as much opposition as Aurora, but it was still compelled to issue its “Standards of Care,” which details how its raises its cows (

Thus in the dairy industry, the controversy over pasture access, generated by the vague language of the NOP rules, tends to boil down to tension between corporate dairy companies and smaller, independent or cooperative producers. The influence consumer activism has borne on company behavior is worthy of note, and whether comparable activity will occur in regard to organic beef deserves attention.

Pictures: Cows on Mike Sebion's farm in Viroqua; the co-op in downtown Viroqua; a retail outlet for Organic Valley in La Farge; and Mike Sebion on his farm.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Return of the Dwarf Cinquefoil

From the December issue of Appalachia!

The view from Mt. Monroe takes in a remarkable juxtaposition of wilderness and civilization. To the north, Mt. Washington is grand and daunting yet subdued beneath the summit buildings. Lakes of the Clouds Hut cuts a lower profile in the col between Washington and Monroe, but it stands out in among the alpine tundra. The western approaches to the Presidentials are awash with human structures, while away to the southeast stretches the isolated Dry River Wilderness.

Close at hand is the slender Crawford Path, a route popular with parents and thru-hikers for its gentle circuit around the pyramid-like peak of Monroe. It passes Monroe Flats, 5,100 feet high and conspicuous for its level and patterned surface. Across several acres, strips of vegetation alternate with rust-colored lines of broken rock and soil, giving the Flats a terraced aspect. An avenue of pebbles cuts it through the middle.

This site is home to the Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla Robbinsiana), a tiny flower species unique to the White Mountains. Its name comes from the French, meaning five leaves; the leaflets, which are serrated, often occur in threes as well as fives. Its flower is a bright yellow.

At once hardy and vulnerable, the Dwarf Cinquefoil has adapted to a unique combination of geomorphology and climate. Wind whips across its habitat, stripping cover and exposing the ground to scouring from snow and ice as well as opening it up to winter sunshine. The frequency of freeze-thaw cycles is what makes the site unique. Water seeps into topsoil and freezes, expanding and thrusting rocks and plants out of the earth. Subsequently, in a process known as solifluction, the disturbed soil and rocks coalesce into stripes, giveing Monroe Flats its unusual terraced appearance.

Most alpine plants, though adapted to the severe climate in the Presidentials, succumb to the constant exposure and freezing and thawing on Monroe Flats. Dwarf Cinquefoil, actually a member of the rose family, is the exception, with 95% of its population existing in that one area. Its small size, usually less than two inches tall and wide, and paucity of roots make it vulnerable to competition from bigger plants in more clement conditions, but in the alpine zone and particularly Monroe Flats, minimalism is an effective survival strategy.

A tiny patch of Dwarf Cinquefoil also survives in the Franconia Range. Most alpine plants in New Hampshire grow in Labrador, but not the Dwarf Cinquefoil—its niche is severely limited.

It is therefore particularly susceptible to disturbances other than freezing and thawing. Unsurprisingly, interaction with humans has not been healthy for the plant, at least until the last twenty years. In fact, our relationship with it is remarkably representative of society’s evolving attitude toward the natural world in general. Once nearly collected and trampled into extinction, Dwarf Cinquefoil is now making a resurgence thanks to local, Federal-supported, stewardship.

Besides a few hardy explorers, the first visitors to the alpine zone were tourists and botanists, whose ranks ballooned upon the completion of the first railroad to the White Mountains in 1851. American botany was then so young that many alpine flowers were undiscovered and unnamed—a treasure trove for those with the interest, funds, and resolution to attain the peaks’ higher recesses. Many of the first botanists were amateurs, but they made up for their inexperience with extraordinary energy. As Laura and Guy Waterman wrote in Forest and Crag, “It is conceivable that between 1825 and 1848…the Presidential Range was hiked more intensively, albeit by a tiny band of dedicated men, than it has been in any generation since, when almost everyone sticks to established trails.”

Thomas Nuttall discovered the Dwarf Cinquefoil, but James Oakes gave it its Latin name, honoring James W. Robbins, another botanist. Many early botanists gave their names to the landscape: Oakes Gulf, for instance, or Boott Spur and Tuckerman Ravine. Originally, these monikers were possessive, as in Oakes’ Gulf. Over time, convenience has had a shortening effect.

In those days, botany was as much a matter of collection as observation. As a stroll through any older natural history museum will demonstrate, scientists vied with one another for the most comprehensive collection, whether of rocks, plants, or animals.

Being rare and difficult to get at, Dwarf Cinquefoil was particularly prized. Indeed, some botanists supported their scientific excursions by selling specimens to collectors. In 1993, a researcher found 850 specimens of the plant in collections around the world.

An even greater threat to the Dwarf Cinquefoil was the Crawford Path, which originally ran straight through Monroe Flats and remains etched into the landscape—a straight, rocky line testifying to the slow pace of recovery in the alpine zone. Ethan Crawford, the legendary innkeeper in Crawford Notch, built the Path in 1819. Though large portions of it have been moved, it is the longest continuously used hiking trail in the US.

Crawford, remembered as the stereotype of a mountain man with his ragged hair, remarkable feats of woodcraft, and eccentric personality, was also a shrewd businessman. With his father, Abel, he built the Crawford Path (in addition to another trail which roughly followed the same path as the Cog Railway) for adventurous guests who might wish to walk—or, in later years, ride horses—to Washington’s summit and back. Conveniently, they would also have to spend a couple of nights at his inn and maybe even hire him as a guide.

What with the heavily-used Crawford Path and the less popular Dry River Trail, which ran through Monroe Flats on its descent into Oakes Gulf, it is perhaps surprising that the Dwarf Cinquefoil managed to escape extinction. A 1973 census of Monroe Flats counted 1,801 plants larger than half an inch in diameter, and ten years later, its numbers had dwindled to 1,547. Between zealous botanists and the backpacking boom of the 1960s, the plant population was declining to unsustainable levels.

Officials realized that without prompt action, the plant would soon decline below the minimum population necessary for survival. In 1980, they finally designated its critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act, providing impetus for several steps to protect the plant. First, to mitigate human impact, trail crews relocated the upper part of the Dry River Trail entirely away from the plant’s habitat and moved the Crawford Path to the edge of Monroe Flats. They then built a scree wall along the trail’s edge to discourage people from stepping off. Finally, a pair of signs was posted to inform hikers about the plant’s fragility and warn them to watch their step.

Results were dramatic. According to an AMC study, 10% of hikers stepped off the trail the first year after relocation, but since then, levels have dropped to 2%. An effort to educate passers-by was initiated, led by the croo at nearby Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Lynne Zummo, an earnest veteran of several seasons on the AMC’s hut croos who worked as the Naturalist at Lakes in 2006, says, “While the vast majority of people who come through Lakes have no clue about it [the Dwarf Cinquefoil], those who do, or [those who] learn about it while at Lakes, take an interest in it. I always thought about it as one more thing that connects people to the place, making them want to both return to and protect the area.”

Another strategy in the rehabilitation effort is transplanting. Before 1980, attempts were made to transplant the Dwarf Cinquefoil to 20 different locations in the White Mountains, but all failed because suitable habitat was so limited. Since then, there have been about a dozen tries. In recent efforts, seeds are gathered and taken to the New England Wildflower Society’s seed bank at Garden of the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts. Some are placed in storage, while others are germinated and held for two years, when they are planted, keeping the soil surrounding the roots intact. Success has been elusive, but transplants have survived in two places of note: at a new spot on Washington and at a new site along Franconia Ridge.

By 1992, Monroe Flats had over 3,000 plants, and 4,575 in 1999 (the censuses include plants wider than 14 mm. as numbers of smaller specimens vary dramatically according to season and climate). An original colony along Franconia Ridge, thought to be extinct, was identified in 1984, though it is only a tiny remnant of a larger population. This patch has been so eroded by hikers on the nearby Franconia Ridge Trail that the remaining habitat is unlikely to be viable in the long term.

Ultimately, while education, transplants, and habitat studies have played a role in the Dwarf Cinquefoil’s resurgence, “The recovery is largely a result of the habitat and population being left alone,” says Doug Weihrauch, an AMC staff scientist and alpine ecologist.

In 2002, using census data and other observations, the Fish and Wildlife Service deemed that the plant’s recovery was strong and danger of a relapse low. Consequently, they proposed and eventually did delist the Dwarf Cinquefoil as an Endangered Species, with the strong support of the AMC. Since the plant is entirely on Federal Land, it remains protected by USFS and state regulations forbidding its damage or removal. The Endangered Species Act also requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor a species for five years after delisting.

During the summer of 2006, the designated census was taken, finding 4,777 Dwarf Cinquefoils growing on Monroe Flats. While the original population of plants on Franconia Ridge is unlikely to survive, the new transplant site is doing well—numbers have increased from 135 in 2000 to 165.

Though transplanting is for now mostly over, the AMC will continue moving new plants into the viewing garden site. According to Weihrauch, “This location has very limited, and probably sub-optimal habitat, but the idea is to establish a few plants here for education purposes, and so that those wanting to see/photograph the plant can do so without impacting the population.

“We will continue to collect seeds, at least for the next few years, for storage in a seed bank,” continues Weihrauch. “We will also conduct another count of the Franconia Ridge transplant population next year, even though it has increased overall…we want to make sure that the declines are…not the beginning of a trend.”

Despite the ever-growing number of visitors to the alpine zone, the Dwarf Cinquefoil’s future is brighter now than at any time in the past 30 years, thanks to the efforts to educate the public and minimize hikers’ impact on Monroe Flats. It is a hopeful but precarious balance, and one that will require vigilance in the years to come.

Photos: Monroe Flats, from Mt. Monroe (Ben Lewis), the DC up close, Lakes croo relaxing on the roof with Monroe and Monroe Flats in the background, and the DC up close again.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The West Texas landscape in film

The two films that have received the most critical attention of the holiday Oscar season are the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Curiously, both were filmed in West Texas. As I have pointed out in earlier posts, it is a stark landscape, exceptional for its aridity and harsh, piercing, and beautiful light. In short, it is well suited to stories with biblical themes, which is undoubtedly why the Coens and Anderson chose to shoot their movies there (the Cormac McCarthy novel on which the Coen’s movie is based also takes place along the border, while There Will Be Blood, adapted from a muckraking Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!, is set in Southern California).

Spending Christmas at home in New England has increased my awareness of the contrast in landscapes. West Texas certainly has something in common with the Plains—the absence of trees means that the entire sky is visible, making one feel far more insignificant and exposed than in a hilly, forested place. On the other hand, such panoramas can be inspiring and liberating. No wonder that Marfa, a few score miles north of Big Bend, is an artists’ haven. It has been suggested that both films are “great American movies;” in that these stories of men who encounter great opportunity but ultimately are undone by greed evoke American themes of capitalism gone wrong, such adulation may be deserved. Certainly the acting of Daniel Day-Lewis and Josh Brolin is superb, though the Coen Brothers short-change character development by evoking themes of fate.

Quite a few developers have tried to make a fortune in West Texas, and most have failed. The landscape destroyed and was destroyed by the cattlemen of the late nineteenth-century. Too dry for open range grazing, its fragile grass ecosystems were ravaged by cattle before the cattle themselves died of thirst or cold or were shipped away to greener pastures. Even now, the semi-desert is mainly populated by invasive species, though there are efforts to bring back the native grasses. Abandoned fencing, homesteads, and various short-lived adaptations are now important features of the landscape in their own right.

Somehow, the light of West Texas, in its intense fragility, evokes the fleeting nature of human settlement out there. This quality is not unique only to West Texas—I’ve noticed it also in Idaho (it is omnipresent in Napoleon Dynamite, where it evokes the austerity and loneliness of its characters, behind their hip humor). Quite likely it is present throughout the American West, and indeed the dryer, more rugged regions of the world. Perhaps that is why country music, with its reliable and comforting themes of love and family, is so popular among inhabitants of these rather desolate places.

Such light, like these two remarkable movies, suggests that it is hubris to inhabit such places permanently.

These pictures are all from Big Bend National Park. The large rock mesa is Casa Grande, in the Chisos Range, while the pool of water amidst rock walls is part of the nearby Window.