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

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