Sierra Summit

Conversations and observations about California's mountains

May 24, 2010
The spills we ignore
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Imagine, for a moment, that oil is discovered in the Sierra Nevada and government officials give the okay to drill.
Impossible, you say, and you're right. 
But that scenario plays out regularly in foreign countries from which America obtains most of its oil. And when spills happen in those places, there is no outpouring of concern and media attention like what is taking place in the Gulf. 
"There is a double-standard," Omoyele Sowore, an environmentalist from Nigeria, told me recently. 
In Nigeria - the 4th largest source of foreign oil in the U.S. - more than 2,000 oil pollution sites are estimated to need cleaning up. In the tar sands region of Alberta - another major source of oil for America - at least 200 square miles of wildlife habitat have been ruined, including areas critical for migratory waterfowl and songbirds. And those are just two examples. 
To learn more about the oil spills we ignore - and what people in oil-producing regions of Africa, Canada and South America  are saying, read my story for McClatchy Newspapers at:

Photo by Bryan Patrick


April 29, 2010

April 27, 2010
Sierra Business Council `Vision 2020' winners announced

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The Sierra Business Council has announced the winners of its Vision 2020 awards. The work of this year's honorees reflects some of the biggest challenges facing the range, from providing low-income housing in resort areas to thinning over-crowded, fire-prone forests to protecting rural areas from development. 

Meea Kang, president of Domus Development, was selected for her efforts to bring affordable housing to Kings Beach at Lake Tahoe where many Hispanic families now live in over-crowded conditions in trailers and apartments. 

Jim Turner, general manager of the Loyalton Co-Generation Plant and Keith Logan, principal in the firm Logan and Associates, were singled out for their work to develop renewable sources of wood energy (known as biomass) and help make Sierra forests more fire-resilient at the same time.

Reed Tollefson, manager of Audubon's California Kern River Preserve was selected for reaching out to private landowners and public agencies to preserve the rural nature of the area, and for his efforts at ecological restoration.

Finally, Michael Chrisman, former California Secretary for Natural Resources, was selected for his leadership on Sierra issues, including his role in the formation of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy in 2004. 

Based in Truckee, the Sierra Business Council is a nonprofit group of more than 700 members that works across the range to protect the environment, improve economic prosperity and community vitality and promote social fairness.

(Photo: From left to right, Michael Chrisman, Jim Logan, Meea Kang, Reed 

Tollefson, Jim Turner and Sierra Business Council president Steven Frisch.) 

April 26, 2010
Cattle contaminate high Sierra lakes and streams
cows from buckley.jpgIn case you missed it, my story about livestock grazing and water pollution in the high Sierra is well worth a look. 
The story examines the efforts of Robert Derlet, former director of the emergency room at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, to collect and analyze water samples from high Sierra lakes and streams over the past 10 years. In short, Derlet found U.S. Forest Service lands where cattle graze, including wilderness areas, were the most widely contaminated. He is using his findings - which have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals - to call for the creation of up to five new national parks across the high Sierra. "This is where the water is the purest," he said. "This is what needs to be protected."
Anne Yost, regional rangeland program manager for the Forest Service, is skeptical. "You can prove a lot of different points with research," she said. Other scientific studies, she said, show the agency can successfully manage cattle in the high Sierra and protect water quality. 

 You can find the story at:

(Photo of cattle in the Stanislaus National Forest, north of Yosemite National Park, courtesy of John Buckley, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.)


April 23, 2010
A great glacier resource
lyell1.jpgScientists at Portland State University have assembled a wonderful website tracking the retreat of glaciers across the West, including the Sierra Nevada. This is a great tool for teachers, backpackers and anyone else interested in what's happening at the uppermost reaches of our mountains.

Countless stories have been written about glacial retreat. What makes the Portland State website fascinating is it shows you the retreat with contemporary and historical photos assembled on a timeline. A simple click takes you back in time - and shows you what our Sierra glaciers looked like a half century and more ago. It's fascinating - and I encourage you to check it out at: 

 Bottom line: Our glaciers, like Lyell in Yosemite National Park, show above, are retreating fast. 

April 2, 2010
Energy Star program vulnerable to fraud

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We all want to save energy. But a new
Government Accountability Office report has uncovered serious flaws with the
government's  Energy Star program,
which was established to identify products that lower energy costs and reduce
greenhouse gas emissions. 

Its logo is widespread on appliances and electronics today. But there's a catch: the government does not  verify manufacturer claims of energy savings - and that means products that carry the Energy Star logo may not be energy savers.

To prove this, the GAO set up bogus companies and submitted applications for Energy Star certification for 15 make-believe products. Most were approved, including - unbelievably - a gasoline-powered alarm clock the size of a small generator!

Many of the fictitious devices quickly appeared on a government web-site as official Energy Star products, including a computer monitor that was approved in just 30 minutes. Soon, real companies were calling the bogus GAO firms, wanting to buy the products based on their energy savings.

Obviously, this is not good. As the GAO pointed out in its report: "Our investigation found that companies can easily submit fictitious energy-efficiency claims in order to obtain Energy Star qualification for a broad range of consumer products."

ES_Logo 1.jpg

 To read the full report, go to:

February 19, 2010
Reflections on Lake Tahoe
We all know Lake Tahoe is a place of stunning beauty. 
But that beauty also masks big problems facing the lake these days, from aging, polluting urban development to high unemployment and the threat of invasive aquatic species. 
Last September, Joanne Marchetta, executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, gave a remarkable speech about the state of Lake Tahoe is which she addressed many of the challenges 
February 4, 2010
A mystery at treeline
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If you've hiked in the high Sierra, you've seen the wind-sculpted, shrub-like stands of whitebark pine that cling to the ridges at tree-line around 11,000 feet. 

They are the last gasp of the conifer kingdom, seemingly capable of enduring whatever nature throws at them.

But now these hardy survivors are dying in places and scientists aren't sure why. But some speculate that it may be related to a shrinking snowpack and climate change. 

"Our hypothesis is that in areas where there is more snowmelt than in previous centuries, they are actually being exposed to colder conditions that they would under snow," said Connie Millar, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who took this photo near Mt. Conness north of Tioga Pass last year. "The snow really protects them."

More work will be needed to prove or disprove the hypothesis. But the situation underscores how complex the impacts of global warming can be in the Sierra. "It's sort of counter-intuitive," Millar said. "Everybody thinks of heat. But as soon as you don't have the blanket of snow on, things could be experiencing a much more severe climate, and some super-cold temperatures."

The same phenomenon may also be involved in recent population declines of America pika - a small, mountain-dwelling, rabbit-like mammal - in some parts of the West.  "It's a question to test," Millar said. "But it's certainly a fact that if you're exposed in the winter to the atmosphere, you experience extremes of cold and heat more than if there is snow cover.

"There is no question that is true in mountainous areas," she added. "The question is whether that is happening more and is related to the death we are seeing."

December 14, 2009
Snow on the Equator (The Glaciers of Uganda)
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   Uganda is a country of sticky tropical heat, rutted, red-dirt roads and - incongruously - a handful of rapidly-receding glaciers. 
   They cling to the jagged 16,000-foot eaves of one the world's most eerie alpine landscapes - the Rwenzori mountains, or Mountains of the Moon, as they are often called. 
    Glaciers are receding across the world. But Uganda's ice is disappearing so rapidly it may be gone before scientists can learn  much more about it. Local tribes that rely on the snow-capped range for tourist revenue are worried too. Read my story about Uganda's imperiled glaciers in Yale University's on-line magazine e360 at the following link: 

December 1, 2009
Climate Change, Photography and Science
    "Nothing is easier than to remain unaware of gradual processes."
     Bernard DeVoto - the great historian of the American West -   wrote those words six decades ago in an article about the dangers of deforestation, over-grazing and soil erosion.
     Today, they hold true for an even larger environmental challenge: climate change. 
      But thanks to an impressive new book by  Truckee landscape photographer Elizabeth Carmel, it will be difficult to remain unaware of the gradual impacts of climate change in the Sierra Nevada.  
      Carmel's book - The Changing Range of Light -  is a surprise.  Not only is it a stunning collection of photographs of landscapes threatened by global warming (such as the Lake Tahoe basin, above), it is a reader-friendly introduction to basic Sierra Nevada climate science, as well. 
        Carmel accomplishes that feat by inviting two leading researchers - Robert Coats, a visiting scholar with the U.C. Davis Department of Environnmental Science and Policy and Geoffrey Schladow, founding director of the U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center -  to contribute to the book. The resulting mix of aesthetic image and empirical science is a rare treat.

Not only do we see what's at risk, we learn why - and what it may mean for future generations. As Coats and Schladow write in an introduction to the book:  "It is our hope that by presenting information from the scientific literature along with Elizabeth Carmel's extraordinary photographs, we will help both to inspire and to motivate readers to take effective action to address the challenges posed by climate change."

Carmel, one of 12 photographers honored worldwide with the Hasselblad Master Photographer Award in 2006, told me she wanted her book to be more than just another collection of pretty pictures.  "As an artist who works in the Sierra, I feel it's my responsibility to communicate the threats to the landscape and scenery that everyone loves so much," she said. And turning to science helped her do that job. "Climate change is a serious issue. I think the best way to communicate that is through empirical data, rather than personal opinion."

Carmel and her husband operate an art gallery in the historic downtown section of Truckee. If you live in the area, drop by Saturday Dec. 5 from 4 to 6:30 for a book release party and fund-raiser for the Truckee-Donner Land Trust. If not, look for The Changing Range of Light in a bookstore or on-line at The Carmel Gallery web-site below.  If you love the Sierra, as Elizabeth obviously does, you are sure to like her book - and learn from it, too. 

(Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Carmel)


November 30, 2009
Green vs. Green at Lake Tahoe
A new kind of development struggle is emerging at Lake Tahoe: green vs. green. 

If you haven't seen my recent story about it, click on this link for more details: 

Very briefly, inventor and developer Roger Wittenberg wants to tear down the blighted Tahoe Biltmore Lodge & Casino at Crystal Bay and replace it with an eco-friendly resort he says will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dramatically slow erosion into the lake. Details about the project - known as the Boulder Bay Resort & Wellness Center - were unveiled a few weeks ago. 

But some of the lake's environmentalists are wary. As Rochelle Nason, executive director of The League to Save Lake Tahoe, wrote in an e-mail: "After many years of broad agreement about Tahoe's future, there are now some pretty fierce disputes raging.... The bigger picture is deeply worrisome - there is really no effective plan to achieve regional environmental objectives at this point, much less one grounded in science and sound policy, which Tahoe truly needs." 

On the north shore - which is struggling economically and losing business to other resort areas - support for the project is strong. "I am honestly concerned," said Art Chapman, president of JMA Ventures LLC, which owns Alpine Meadows and Homewood ski areas and who support Boulder Bay. "I see the deterioration of infrastructure. I see people moving out of the area. Here we have the environmental community, instead of getting involved in the community, and listening, they're just against everything.

"This isn't about development," Chapman added. "This is about the decline of Lake Tahoe, both economically and socially - and ultimately environmentally. Because if you can't create sustainable jobs, you can't sustain the economy."

Ultimately, he fears banks may decline to fund Tahoe projects because of regulatory uncertainty. And that, he said, could hurt the environment. "Because if the private sector withdraws and doesn't fund these environmental initiatives, you are going to be left looking entirely to governmental agencies. In the next few years, I can't see the state of California, or the federal government, putting a ton of money into this area."

The League to Save Lake Tahoe has not taken an official position on Boulder Bay but has sued to stop two other proposed developments, one of which includes stream restoration and erosion control projects and green-certified design and construction. "Those two (projects) have been egregious examples of development projects getting a pass on the rules that apply to everybody else in the Tahoe basin," Nason said. 

The fate of Wittenberg's project is now before the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's governing board which is holding a series of public hearings and is expected to make a decision sometime early next year.  

September 29, 2009
Alpine wildflowers and climate change
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Some of the prettiest wildflowers you'll ever see in the Sierra Nevada grow above timberline, including this wonderfully-named Sky Pilot, which I photographed at 12,500 feet above sea level at the Middle Palisade glacier near Big Pine earlier this month (Sept. 09)

The Sky Pilot is also emblematic of a rugged, windswept and starkly beautiful ecosystem that is now in danger because of global warming.

"As the climate gets warmer, the tree-line moves up," Ann Dennis, a retired vegetation ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service told me in an interview. "If tree-line goes all the way up to the top of the mountains, there will be very little habitat left for these species."

The risk is more acute in the northern Sierra, including the Lake Tahoe region, because  forests already creep close to the summits in many places, she said. "The alpine zone is really just a tiny little slice at the top of the peaks. Once the trees get up to the top of those peaks, there really isn't going to be habitat in the Tahoe area for a number of species."

Dennis is working with the Global Observation and Research Initiative in Alpine Environments, or GLORIA, for short ( to study changes in the alpine zone. Research is underway in the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains and more information can be found at:

"I think it is a very genuine cause for concern," Dennis told me. "I care, personally, because I love the high mountains. And I have been going up to very high places since I was a little child. My heart sings in these places. I love it."

About Sierra Summit

The Author
Tom Knudson lives in the Sierra Nevada and travels widely throughout the range. His hobbies include fly-fishing, backpacking and cross-country skiing. He is the recipient of numerous journalistic awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, one for a 1992 Sacramento Bee series "Sierra in Peril," a watershed work about environmental threats to the mountain range. E-mail Tom at

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