Monday, April 30, 2007

In bloom - update

Part of what I love about wildflowers is their unpredictability. Just when you think you know what should be in bloom where and when, the temperature or rainfall or combination of the two intervenes. Flowers bloom early, flowers bloom late, flowers barely show, blooms overlap. A rare plant will bloom on a road cut bank and you'll not see it again for ten years.

UC Digital Library photos and information on flowers and more

Monday, April 30

I drove down Highway 88 from Pine Grove to Jackson today and returned home up Shake Ridge Ridge. Have to say this is an excellent year for lupine, in spite of (because of?) the dry winter. The patches of common lupine -- I don't know the species -- are abundant and expansive. The yerba santa is blooming early on the S-curves outside Sutter Creek.

At home today . . .

  • Four kinds of monkeyflowers
  • Wilding pinks (petrorhagia dubia)
  • Douglas meadowfoam
  • Some clover, a few lupine, wildland stars
  • Purple milkweed
  • Lots of vetch

The Indian soap plant should bloom before long.

Monday, April 23, Shake Ridge Road east of Oneto Road and west of New Chicago - Quartz Mountain Road:

Indian pinks (silene) -- red ones, pink ones -- on the banks on the south side of the road. Pink flowers are pinks... red flowers are pinks ... I even saw a white pink the other day. Go figure. . .

April 21, on our property near Daffodil Hill

  • A few lingering shooting stars
  • Purple milkweed in bud
  • Douglas meadowfoam in bud
  • Yellow monkeyflowers
  • Gold fields are fading
  • Native clover
  • Yellow violets
  • Wild ginger (shown at right)
  • White California lilac/deer brush (ceanothus)
  • Woodland stars

April 20, "old" Hwy 49 btwn Amador City and Sutter Creek

  • Chinese houses (shown at right)
  • Fiddleneck

April 15, PG&E Road below Tiger Creek Afterbay

  • Globe lilies (shown at right)
  • Various lupines

What's the right time for a project?

This is a follow-up to my "good design, right place, right time" post. (Which leads me to wonder...maybe the Tim Duane "design, location, timing" triad should be adopted as the triple bottom line of development criteria, just as "people, planet, and profit" has become the triple bottom line for many businesses.)

So when is the time "right" for a new development project?

To make that determination requires considering these questions:

  • Is the land designated for development in the local general plan?
  • Does the community need the project?
  • Does the community welcome the project?
  • Is there infrastructure capacity available to adequately serve the project -- roads, schools, water, wastewater, libraries, landfill, parks, trails, hospitals, and other facilities?
  • Are adequate services available -- emergency services, child care, medical services?
  • Will the project make life better for people who already live here or at least not make it worse?
I'd say if the answer to any one of these questions is "no," then the time is not right for the project. Think about it: why should a project go forward if schools are overcrowded, wastewater capacity is nearly gone, traffic is backing up on local roads, emergency responders are overstressed, the project doesn't provide housing or facilities locals need, the community really doesn't want it, or it makes life worse for those of us who live here already?

So who decides when the time is right? Some would say developers, who do market research, buy ranch land cheap so they can maximize profits, and propose projects based on their research and profit needs.

But the decision really rests with a community -- us -- and the elected officials who represent us. Just because a developer wants to build doesn't mean the time is right. It might be -- but then again, it may make more sense to raise cows, not people, on that inexpensive ranch land for at least a little while longer.

More development principles

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Una grande sierra nevada

Yesterday afternoon, following the weekend's storm, the Valley air was scrubbed clean of dust, dirt, smog and smoke. The Sierra stood in the distance, at the same time close, and huge -- looming like the Himalaya above the green valley and foothills.

The Range of Light was indeed light -- bright, white, gleaming light, thanks to the weekend snowfall -- with purple-blue where forests cover mountain slopes. And one could see deep into the east, far to the north and south: Mokelumne Peak, Pyramid Peak, Blue Mountain, and much, much more.

It was a scene unreal in its beauty.

On days like that, I can begin to imagine what people felt when they first viewed "una grande sierra nevada" -- a great snowy mountain range. We're blessed to have those days, and these mountains.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Nature's sanctuary

Some people find spiritual sustenance in church. Others, like me, find it in nature. There truly are places that make your heart rejoice -- where your cares fall away and you revel in the beauty and wonder of the world.

The North Fork Mokelumne River canyon is one of those places for me. I love it all, from the tiniest mushroom to the huge, granite Calaveras Dome near Salt Springs. I love it in every season. I love it in every color. I love it at every time of day. It is a place that makes me feel whole, connected to human and geologic time.

That river canyon is millions of years old, but human history there is relatively short -- maybe the last 2,500 to 3,000 years. Over time, the water carved its way through rock. The great forests grew up. The wildlife moved in. And native people found a way to make a living as well as a trade route to their counterparts in the Eastern Sierra.

So for more than 17 years, I have tried to protect just 17 miles of the North Fork Mokelumne River. -- to make sure people can hike down into that steep canyon in the future and feel what it's like to be totally surrounded by forest, to see flowing water shaping ancient rock.

When the Power Fire hit the canyon back in 2004, a year in which I'd already lost my father-in-law, I felt like someone else I knew had died. I knew intellectually that fire is part of nature in the Sierra. I know that fires can be rejuvenating -- and much of the Power Fire was good for the forest. But my heart was sick.

And now, Sierra Pacific Industries, California's largest private landowner, which has been destroying more and more of our Sierra forests with clearcuts, wants to clearcut the upper, north-facing slopes of the Devil's Nose -- the part of the mountain most visible from Amador County and scenic Highway 88. They want to log along the creeks that lead to the river and in the deep river canyon near the North Fork itself. And once again, I am feeling sad and sick.

This time, though, there's no intellectual balancing to help me cope. Logging can be done sustainably, but clearcutting is not a force of nature. It is not good for Sierra forests. It destroys habitat, kills off wildlife that are forced to move into already occupied habitat elsewhere. And it adds to future fire risk by creating acres of highly flammable young trees that are all needles -- the part of trees that really carry fire. It is the conversion of diverse natural forest to farm-like plantation.

And logging along tributary streams and the river is not a good thing, especially right here, right now. We know that rare foothill yellow-legged frogs in the canyon are dropping in number. We know the watershed was hammered by SPI's post-Power Fire logging (when I first saw that in person, I couldn't sleep for two days). And now, SPI wants to log out the remaining large trees -- the ones most useful for wildlife, the ones that may have been there for maybe hundreds of years, near the river.

And so my heart is sick again, and my head is hurting, too.

For more on current efforts to stop SPI's unsustainable logging, see the websites of Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch and Forest Ethics

What makes a good project?

Back in 1993, UC Berkeley planning professor Dr. Tim Duane spoke at a Foothill Conservancy meeting in Jackson. Since Duane grew up in Nevada County, he had personal as well as professional experience with foothill growth.

Duane talked about growth coming to the foothills in the form of "equity-amenity refugees" -- people with large amounts of equity from the sale of their urban homes looking for an amenity-filled lifestyle. Sound familiar?

He warned about problems other areas had with wastewater disposal when they grew beyond their infrastructure capacity. He talked about clustering development to protect wildlife habitat and open space. And he raised a number of other points for the audience to consider.

At the end of the presentation, Pat Crosby, now a city councilman in Sutter Creek, asked Duane, "What makes a good project?" I'll never forget Duane's answer, because it was so simple.

He said, "A good project is well designed, built in the right place, at the right time." That pretty much says it all. Good design alone is not enough. Location alone is not enough. Timing alone is not enough. A good project must contain all of these elements, together.

More on this another day. . . but see more development principles

Friday, April 13, 2007

What are "deciders" for?

After a long hard work week, the last thing I expected to be doing Friday night was writing a blogpost. But after reading the latest articles in the Amador Ledger Dispatch about wastewater and traffic, I just couldn't help myself. So I started this one.

Right now, the available excess wastewater treatment and disposal capacity in our county is quickly disappearing. Solving that problem will take millions of dollars, and it won't happen overnight.

Our roads are becoming increasingly jammed and there is no solution in sight -- especially considering local voters' distaste for taxes and the constraints imposed by our topography.

Meanwhile, the cities of Jackson and Sutter Creek, and the county itself are considering major development projects: Wicklow Way, Gold Rush, and Jackson Hills. And with the sale of the Howard Ranch to developers, Ione may see a major project in its future before too long. These subdivisions proposals are often written and talked about as if they're a done deal. But are they?

Subdivisions must be approved by a city council or board of supervisors, or in some cases, a planning commission. Developers do not have a right to convert a cattle pasture into houses just because they spend a lot of money on plans and studies. They must gain the approval of the local government first.

The local government must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to disclose the environmental impacts of the project. The project must be consistent with the local general plan and zoning code -- including the sections that address roads and other infrastructure. Ultimately, local officials must approve or reject the project in a discretionary vote.

And you know what? They can say no. They truly can. If they couldn't, the matter would never come to them for a decision, would it? Developers would just walk up to the permit counter, pay their fees, and start up the bulldozers.

In some cases, including situations where a project is inconsistent with a general plan, state law even requires the local council or supervisors to say no.

Here's what a League of California Cities publication on California's land use planning framework has to say about subdivision review, "After a public hearing, the local agency may approve, conditionally approve, or deny the map after making specific findings."

Of course, all of this is subject to myriad statutes and case law. But sometimes I wonder if our local media, local planners, and even our elected "deciders" understand that decisionmakers have any discretion at all. A plan is not a project. A proposal is not a subdivision. And when a community has limited wastewater and road capacity, it may not be prudent to approve large projects that would use up all that capacity, and more.

Communities, like families, ultimately have to live within their means -- whether those means are water, wastewater, schools, fire protection, roads, or child care facilities. If they don't, the consequences can be pretty dire.

Our deciders need to make decisions that are in the public interest. It's not an easy job. They are put under tremendous pressure by all of the competing interests in the community and California's post-Prop 13 funding realities. And they have to sort out myths from the facts: what is a "property right"? What does the law really require?

Still, the decisions are theirs to make. And that's what we elect them to do.

Articles on Amador wastewater and traffic.

California land use basics

California Goverment Code on subdivision approval

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A world without hawks

Late this afternoon, I drove home in the unsettled weather typical of a foothill spring. The storm that blew through today was breaking up. It was raining, then sunny, then misting, then gray again. Heavy hailstorms often intervene on days like this, but today saw a gentler storm-end.

The grass, shrubs, and trees were every possible shade of green. The vernal pools were ringed in yellow -- some playing host to ducks fattening up on fairy shrimp. The swales were washed in color. Blue dicks bloomed at the lower elevations, orange bush monkeyflowers joining in as I headed east. Calves' faces were the bright white that marks them as newly born.

All along the way, at the even intervals their territorial imperative requires, red-wing blackbirds clung to reeds, sat on fence wires, perched on fence posts, trilled their spring song and flashed their bright epaulets.

The late afternoon light was enveloping, warm, shifting, breaking through clouds, creating faint wide rainbow-ends in the distance. They faded in and out as the storm moved on and I drove toward home.

As I headed up out of Amador City, I saw the groups of Chinese houses that grow back in the east-facing shade along the now-old highway, and I asked myself -- how long do you have to live here to know where the Chinese houses bloom each year? or where to find the globe lilies? or when the blue penstemon blooms? or that the leopard lilies are nearly the last flower to show? and how many people go through life here without knowing any of these things, or even caring to know?

The sun was out again as I descended into Sutter Creek. The hills were glowing and the air had that washed-clean, post-storm clarity. The rainbow east of town was getting brighter and coming into focus. And I saw a large hawk, probably a red tail, floating over town.

I couldn't help but wonder how long the hawks will soar over Sutter Creek. Buteo hawks like red tails depend on prey that live in fields -- rodents, snakes, and such. The hawks' prey is not welcome on manicured golf courses or carefully tended landscapes, and the hawks likely cannot hunt in the dense chaparral that may serve as the leftover "open space" of development projects like Gold Rush.

The hawks have been here longer than any local residents, even native people. But through bad planning choices, we may yet drive them away.

I did not grow up in a place where hawks were abundant. Even after 28 years of country life, I find joy in every one I see. And I would hate to know the day when, driving down into Sutter Creek, one could not even hope to see a soaring hawk.

Photos of flowers, hawks, and such

Sunday, April 1, 2007

A walk on Electra Road

Pete and I went for a nice walk today on Electra Road, along the Mokelumne River. We were out there last weekend, too. Aside from having to keep an eye out for traffic on the narrow road, it's a wonderful place to take a spring foothill river walk.

Electra's always beautiful, but in spring it's especially so. The leafing-out alder and willow stand in bright contrast to the deep blue-green river, and the flowers are fabulous.

Many more flowers were in bloom this week than last. We saw countless California poppies, three kinds of purple lupine, the first Chinese globe lilies, abundant scorpion flowers (phacelia), fringe pod, dudleya, Chinese houses (collinsia), fiddlenecks, popcorn flowers, a couple kinds of brodiaea, some yellow monkeyflowers, and the promise of more to come in the next few weeks.

In addition to the flowers, we watched a pair of common mergansers, a number of black phoebes, and numerous butterflies. Some we knew -- mourning cloaks, swallowtails -- some we didn't, but looked up later.

The mergansers, called "river chickens" by rafting guides, are interesting because the males and females look so different you could easily mistake them for different species.

The Electra run of the Mokelumne really is a "people's river," used by local residents as well as river lovers of all kinds. Today we saw groups having barbecues on the beach, folks watching the river flow by or soaking up the sun, walkers like us with dogs, families with kids, gold panners, teenagers, three cars full of people from Texas, three generations of guys fishing together, and a couple of whitewater kayakers.

Last week we met an entire family of South Asian-American children from Stockton, six in all, ranging in age from about eight to 21. It was their last day of spring break, and the eldest brother had taken everyone for a final day outside. As we left, they were standing side-by-side on the beach throwing rocks across the river -- girls in bright salwar kameez, boys in jeans and t-shirts, everyone barefoot, everyone happy.

The Electra run is also one of the premier kayak training runs in central California. Across the country, cities are building kayak parks to attract tourists and provide recreation for residents, but we have the real thing just south of Jackson.

The Bureau of Land Management may soon recommend the Electra run for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. Protecting this section of river for future generations means that on beautiful spring days like today, families, kids, anglers, couples, tourists, wildflower watchers, birders, and paddlers can continue to appreciate the magic our local river has to offer.

I cannot imagine life here without it.

You can look up the flowers listed here -- and many more -- at the UC Digital Library.