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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville


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California

Sep 10, 2018

Stoking the Flames: Climate Change driving the West’s Devastating Wildfires

Anthropogenic climate change contributed to California’s record-breaking wildfires. The future of fighting these fires grows increasingly perilous.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

The California wildfires of 2018 have seared themselves into the public conscience due to their alarming scale and destructivity. If you are one of the 50,000 ordered to evacuate your home, you know the severity of the infernos. If you are one of the millions of Mountain West residents concerned by the smoky atmospheric haze in your skies for the past month, you can appreciate the fires’ far-reaching impact. If you have followed the flurry of statements from the front lines and finger-pointing officials, you have seen a prominent fact emerge from the smoke: these fires and their effects were made worse by our warming climate.

One misconception about climate change is that it solely causes warmer temperatures. This oversimplifies the situation; global warming due to human activity results in a thinning protective atmosphere and increased solar radiation. The consequences of this heightened solar radiation manifest in myriad extremes such as floodings, drought, heat waves, and more frequent catastrophic weather anomalies. Research published by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that climate change may also increase lightning strike frequency and generate high winds.

According to the 2016 research report, these factors, driven by our carbon-burning habit, are ideal for perpetuating and sustaining large fires.

California’s 2018 wildfire season was the volatile climax of an intensifying narrative of climate change factors. These factors form the backbone of this story. Abnormally heavy winter rains in 2016 and 2017 led to an explosion of plant growth, increasing the fuel load for a sustained flame. In the spring and summer of 2017, earlier springtime melt-off and intense heat dried out the surplus plant material. Come July of 2018, conditions were ripe for the monster Mendocino Complex Fire and several others to torch 600,000 acres, destroy over a thousand homes, and claim at least eight lives. Of the protracted fight to contain and extinguish these flames, president of firefighter union Cal Fire Local 2881 Cliff Allen remarked that “The new normal is we are busier than we’ve ever been”. And further destabilization is likely. According to director of CU Boulder’s Earth Lab Jennifer Balch, computer models forecasting future climate patterns reveal an increased risk of drought and heat waves and delayed fire-quenching autumnal precipitation. Gone are the days of predictable fire seasons and reliable natural limitations on the size and intensity of these blazes.

The “new normal” of California wildfire season is reflected in the numbers. In 2017, wildfires burned a reported 234,000 acres across the state. 2018’s wildfire season blazes on into its historically worst months, and 613,000 acres have already gone up in smoke. To put these figures in perspective, the five-year average from 2013-2018 is just 158,000 incinerated acres. Massive, destructive wildfires, exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change, are California’s new reality. The closer we align firefighting efforts with emerging climate research, the better we can protect vulnerable communities and save lives.

Cover Photo: A helicopter silhouetted by smoke from the Mendocino Complex Fire near Ukiah, CA. By Bob Dass, taken July 27, 2017.

This editorial opinion was written by The Outdoor Journal’s Kela Fetters.

Resources and further reading:

Jennifer Balch’s research summary, A thorough wildfire study by CIRES, A Washington Post special and an editorial board opinion piece, The New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle, A National Academy of Sciences fire study

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Mountain

Nov 12, 2018

Crag Caucus: Veterans and Politicians Rock Climb Together with American Alpine Club

The “Hill to Crag” event series connects veterans and legislators on rock climbing excursions to advocate for public lands. AAC Chairman and active-duty US Army Major Byron Harvison serves the beta.

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Since its creation in 1902, climbing advocacy non-profit the American Alpine Club (AAC) has championed protection for the public lands that serve as unrivaled outdoor venues for climbers and other recreators. Their latest outreach program, the “Hill to Crag” initiative, offers lawmakers and their staff a chance to experience these public lands at iconic climbing spots across the nation. The excursions provision local elected officials with a fun day in a harness, a few sore muscles, and a heightened appreciation for public lands to parlay into protective legislature.

Golden, CO. Photo: Chad Vaughn

After the inaugural event in spring 2018, AAC’s Salt Lake Chapter Chair Byron Harvison saw the potential for veterans to contribute. Harvison, an Army Major and experienced climber, felt that veteran involvement could engender open dialogue. Conversations regarding public lands management can be polarizing; Harvison thinks politicians will respond positively to the testimonial of veterans. “Elected officials may be more inclined to hear what veterans have to say,” he says. Likewise, “discharged veterans oftentimes have a desire to continue to serve and this is a great opportunity.”

Golden, CO. Photo: Chad Vaughn

Harvison explains the Hill to Crag stratagem. “First, we talk about outdoor recreation as a way to deal with veteran-specific issues like PTSD, addiction, and depression following deployment,” he extolls. These dialogues are personal and poignant. Harvison focused on rock climbing after an intense deployment in Afghanistan, and he isn’t the only veteran to credit outdoor recreation with healing. “A lot of guys can say ‘Hey, getting outside saved my life’, and they are able to share those raw stories with these legislators,” he adds.

Harvison knows politicians are beholden to monetary interests and thus explicates the value of outdoor recreation on the local and national economy: “Nationally, outdoor recreation has surpassed the oil and gas industry in economic terms.” A recent government report estimates that outdoor recreation contributes $412 billion annually to the US GDP, and Harvison recognizes the potential for the industry to throw its weight around. “We are finding our voice and coming to realize how loud that voice can be,” he explains.

The crux of Harvison’s discourse is the indispensability of public lands protection. “All of these things—the mental health benefits and thriving outdoor economy—hinge on the availability of public lands to recreate on,” he summarizes.

Photo by Byron Harvison from the Golden, CO Hill to Crag event on October 12, 2018.

Chalk it up to smart strategy, productive dialogue, or a bit of crag magic, but the Hill to Crag events have already made an impact. The inaugural excursion in May of 2018 was testimony to the power of storytelling as pedagogy. Members of the AAC and climbing advocacy group the Access Fund brought Utah Congressman John Curtis to rock climbing mecca Joe’s Valley Boulders in Emery County, UT. Harvison explained to the lawmaker that “each climber contributes around $58 per night to the local economy of nearby Castle Dale.” Castle Dale, a tiny town of 3,500, hosts 19,000-25,000 climbers annually from around the world who are drawn to the area’s intricate sandstone boulders. Emery County faces the economic stagnation typical of a declining coal-mining community, but recreational tourism has considerable potential. “Climbing is a sustainable resource,” Harvison enthuses. “We were able to show Curtis the national and international appeal of our public lands.” In July of this year, Curtis proposed the Emery County Public Land Management Act, which would create a National Conservation Area out of the San Rafael Swell, designating over a half-million acres of the redrock desert parcel federally protected wilderness. The proposal juxtaposes nearly every piece of land-grab legislation to emerge from Utah in the past year and wagers on the economic potential of recreational tourism. Curtis’s proposition, on the heels of a Hill to Crag event, is radical in its embrace of public access instead of for-profit enterprise.

Photo by Dillon Parker from the Vedauwoo Recreation Area, WY Hill to Crag event on October 19, 2018.

Perhaps the AAC recognized the aptitude of rock climbing as a metaphor for public lands access when they launched the Hill to Crag program. Central to both climbing and public lands advocacy is an ethos of respect for natural resources and the responsible placing of protections, be them nuts and crams or legislature. The AAC will hold their final adventure of 2018 on November 16 in Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina (pictured in cover photo). Harvison says that the program will launch spring events in Oregon and Montana and has plans for a route bolting clinic in Wyoming after a successful Hill to Crag climb in the state’s Vedauwoo Recreation Area last month. In concert with the Hill to Crag series, the American Alpine Club is also expanding veteran and active-duty military outreach with new discounted club membership options and targeted events.

Special thanks to US Army Major Byron Harvison, who was interviewed for this piece.

Cover photo by dconvertini via Flickr,

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