Drab and Inconspicuous, Verdins Liven Up the Desert Anyway

My new house came with new pleasures. There are the breezes after sunset, which the cluster of houses in the old neighborhood kept from reaching my windows. Coyotes sing outside my window more nights than not. The baby quail did better in this neighborhood this year than they did in my last one last year.

I think the thing I'm enjoying most is the verdins. I never thought about verdins much before this year. I knew they existed, Latin name Auriparus flaviceps, ridiculously tiny songbirds not much more massive than the insects they eat, supposedly with bright yellow heads but that yellow washes out to drab in the bright desert sun.

That was before I had them next to my desk for most of the workday.

Where the Natives Are: 10 Indigenous Plant Environments Near You

Vista Hermosa Natural Park near Downtown Los Angeles not only offers a closeup view of the L.A. skyline, but a chance for people to have an even closer encounter with California native plants.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

The local movie theatres might already be screening their summer blockbusters, and many schools have already ended their academic year, but we're still in the spring season until the 21st of June.

Seasons? In Southern California? Of course we have seasons. The spring season is when many plants, especially our local California native plants, are in bloom, and the last few weeks of spring not only give you a last chance to see their efflorescence, but to witness the transition into summer dormancy.

You might already know about the great wildflower displays that are a few hours' drive from the city. But did you know native plants can be found right here in the greater Los Angeles area? This column has already featured such native plant installations as the grounds of a public library branch in East Hollywood, a re-created chaparral park in South L.A., a converted water-wise alleyway in Sun Valley, and a newly-planted native garden in coastal San Pedro. But there are even more native plant gardens or habitats, many of them just planted within the past half-decade, that are even closer to you. Here's ten native plant environments around the L.A. area, listed by region:

Go Wild: Celebrating the Gila Wilderness Area's 90th Birthday

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, legislation that legalized the wild and defined it as place where we are not: "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

The act's passage owes an enormous amount to the indefatigable Howard Zahniser, executive director of The Wilderness Society. For years, he wrote draft after draft of the bill, lobbied Congress nonstop, spoke before countless public hearings across the country, and published a stream of articles promoting the legislation (his biographer, Mark Harvey, has just brought out a superb collection of Zahniser's essays). That he did not live to see its passage, dying four months before President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law, seems almost biblical in dimension; like Moses, Zahniser glimpsed but did not reach the Promised Land.

The outlines of that sacred ground had been imagined well before Zahniser took up the cause, however. The imagineer-in-chief was Aldo Leopold, who also served as the founding president of The Wilderness Society. He had been responsible of the creation of the Gila Wilderness Area, located within the Gila National Forest, in southwestern New Mexico. A portion of it is now named after Leopold, an honor that seems even more-well deserved this week, for June 3 marks the 90th anniversary of the world's first designated wildland.

From Pot to Not: How Sequoia and Kings Canyon Extinguished its Weed Problem

Marijuana cultivation in Sequoia National Park in 2009 | Photo: Courtesy National Park Service

A few years ago, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks was overrun with illegal marijuana growth sites. Trees were cut down and destroyed. Water was dammed and reoriented to help cultivate hidden pot plants. Growers would use illegal pesticides, herbicides, and rodenticides on the land, killing off endangered species and damaging local resources, according to park officials.

In 2010 alone, the parks' Marijuana Interdiction Group task forces destroyed some 42,000 plants, or about $169 million worth of weed, National Park Service data shows. Since 2002, they've destroyed nearly 241,000 plants -- some $545 million of marijuana.

But the two abutting parks, which are operated under the same management, haven't seen a new marijuana site in two years -- an accomplishment officials attribute to thorough foot patrols and deterring tactics that seek signs of planting early on and squash them before the plants have a chance to grow.

Going Green, the South L.A. Way

Community Services Unlimited's fresh produce stand was one of the booths at this year's Earth Day South L.A. festival near Exposition Park.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

The month of April has been awash with the usual Earth Day-themed activities, events which encourage attendees to "Go Green" in the form of recycling, zero-waste practices, lowering one's carbon footprint, reducing fossil fuel consumption, adopting bicycling, transit, and walking, saving the rainforests, or being more aware about global climate change. But for some communities, "Going Green" takes on a different sort of context.

Take, for example, the South Los Angeles region, the 50-plus square mile area generally regarded as south of the Santa Monica Freeway down to Rosecrans, and from Alameda Street on the east to the Culver City, Inglewood, and Hawthorne city boundaries.

Known both affectionately and pejoratively as "the ghetto," "the 'hood" or "South Central," the area is known for being historically African American, but most of what is now South Los Angeles was originally built as automobile-oriented middle-class white suburbs, with the exception of the corridor centered along south Central Avenue (hence the name) and parts of Watts, which were designated for black residents during the era of racial covenants in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1950s, though African Americans were finally able to live outside the covenant zones, racial tensions, the construction of freeways (which permanently altered neighborhoods), and the dismantlement of L.A.'s streetcar systems (which previously gave residents access to job bases), made matters worse in South Los Angeles, and culminated in the Watts Riots of 1965. Gang violence and crime rose while the South L.A.'s public image sank, becoming a textbook example of "no-man's land." The 1992 L.A. Riots only validated the socioeconomic inequities that continued after the last riots of the generation previous.

Today, the gang activity and violent crime South L.A. has had a reputation for have decreased, and the area has gone through a demographic shift -- more than half of the area's three-quarters of a million residents are Latino. Though some areas of South Los Angeles have seen investments in terms of development, retail jobs and infrastructure in the past two decades, many of the socioeconomic issues facing South L.A. still remain valid.

Growing Pains: Legalizing Marijuana Might Save Our National Forests

Trees damaged to make room for light to hit marijuana plants in a California national forest. | Photo: Courtesy USFS

Since winter, they have been hiking up through high-country canyons, ravines, and creek beds seeking relatively flat ground with access to even a thin trickle of water. They drop their bulky backpacks, weighed down with tools, food, poison, plastic piping, and tents, and begin clearing the ground manually and with herbicides. Then they set to work laying out waterlines, building check dams, and digging into the hard ground so as to plant thousands of cannabis seeds.

Within weeks, the marijuana is growing quickly in the warm Southern California sun, fed with diverted streamflow and fertilizers, and protected from predators by the thick application of rodenticides and other toxicants. They lay waste to the land so that some might get rich and others stoned.

To keep profits high and overhead low, the drug cartels running these illegal grows have been targeting the U.S. public lands to devastating effect. That is the central theme of a new short film that Forest Service videographers Steve and Ann Dunsky have produced. As part of their RESTORE series, which focuses on a variety of ecological restoration projects across California, the Vallejo-based filmmakers here probe the unsettling impact that marijuana is having on the state's 20 million acres of national forests.

"Marijuana growing on public lands has been going on for 30 plus years, but they have just expanded dramatically," observes Daryl Rush, a special agent in the Forest Service's Law Enforcement and Investigations (LEI) unit. "Every forest is impacted and the majority of our workload is on marijuana investigations on the forest."

Learning to Appreciate Earthquakes

The 5.1-magnitude La Habra earthquake on March 29 demonstrated the typical average-sized temblor Southern Californians should be accustomed to.
| Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Things got a little shaky around here last month.

Many in the Los Angeles area were awakened with a top o' the morning 4.1-magnitude "Shamrock Shake" on March 17, which was centered in the Santa Monica Mountains above Encino. Just 12 days later, on the evening of March 29, a series of tremors centered in La Habra that began with a 3.6 foreshock and peaked with a 5.1 quake that was felt around much of Southern California added to the seismic show beneath our feet. It was the biggest earthquake to rattle the Southland in six years.

Whenever these things happen, it invariably becomes a numbers game, with magnitudes reported on traditional and social media to keep everything in perspective as we anticipate the dreaded "Big One."

We humans fear what we cannot really understand. So maybe it's time for us Southern Californians to understand earthquakes a bit more. Or maybe even appreciate them.

Like snakes and sharks, earthquakes are seemingly menacing things that we tend to fear due to the perceived danger they can bring. But like snakes and sharks, the vast majority of them are rather harmless -- Southern California experiences some 10,000 earthquakes annually, though only a few hundred of them measure above 3.0 in magnitude.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about earthquakes is that they challenge our incorrect notion that the ground is solid.

The theory of plate tectonics, the most widely-accepted scientific explanation for the formation of our planet's landmasses and oceans, suggests the ground is in fact not a solid object, but something that is in a constant state of change, albeit one that cannot be as easily detected by the relatively short span of human recorded history, much less within the relatively short lifespans of humans themselves. In author John McPhee's 1993 book, "Assembling California," where he tags along with geologists who show him how much of the geophysical profile of the Golden State was formed, he wrote, "Fifty thousand major quakes will move something about a hundred miles. After there was nothing, earthquakes brought things from far parts of the world to fashion California." -- The latter sentence also being an interesting parallel to our state's human composition.

But I've always thought of the notion of "Earthquake Country" as somewhat silly, as well as inaccurate, given the context of the East Coast vs. West Coast dichotomy many Americans subscribe to. It's as if it suggests that earthquakes are the price Californians pay for, say, our favorable year-round climate (On the contrary, the most seismically-active state is not California, but Alaska, and the most damaging earthquake to hit the U.S. this century was actually centered in Virginia). The notion of "Earthquake Country" is silly given that some two-thirds of the world's population lives in a seismically-active zone, making a large part of the planet -- as opposed to a single region -- "Earthquake Country."

But if earthquakes are the price we pay, then so be it. The very mountains that we ski on, hike in, or drive up to in order to enjoy spectacular views of the landscape below, are all there because of earthquakes. The peaks and ranges that are home to icons such as the Hollywood Sign, Big Bear Lake, and the Griffith, Mt. Wilson, and Palomar observatories, are all built up by temblors. The very hills that define the character of our communities, and are embedded in their names, be they Woodland, Rolling, Baldwin, Anaheim, Puente, or Beverly, were all created by seismic movements. The 5.1 quake that was centered in La Habra in late March likely lifted the Puente Hills by a few centimeters. To human eyes, the profile of the hills look much the same as they always have been, but in millions of years, they will likely be towering, unrecognizable peaks. Elsewhere, quakes have gradually created the Alps, the Himalayas, the Andes. Without earthquakes, the world would be -- quite literally -- flat.

Dare I say that we are "fortunate" to have earthquakes. A hurricane or typhoon unleashes its destruction over several hours. An earthquake, even the most damaging ones, will last but seconds, minutes at the most. In a hurricane, your house will likely flood. Your carpets and walls will be inundated with water, and when the flood waters cease, mold will take over. In an earthquake, anything that wasn't damaged following the quake likely stays undamaged (as long as you shut the gas off after you've smelled it).

Even the types of earthquakes in Southern California we can be somewhat thankful for. Unlike Japan, Indonesia, Alaska, or Chile, we do not live near a subduction zone, where one of the earth's tectonic plates slams under another. Those conditions create the enormous magnitude 9-and-above quakes that not only cause unprecedented shaking, but the equally disastrous tsunamis that can bring about destruction in faraway lands. A magnitude 8 earthquake, however powerful it can be, is the worst that can happen around here (Seattle and the rest of the Pacific Northwest, have an even bigger "Big One" on their hands).

The Tongva (a.k.a. Gabrieleño) people, the native American tribe that has lived for thousands of years in what is now the Los Angeles area, lived with earthquakes (which they called "yaaytok"). Their folklore explained that the world was built on the backs of seven large turtles (how similar to plate tectonics that is), that moved when angered, causing temblors. Of course, the Tongvan built environment consisted of dwellings made out of whale bones, reeds, and grasses -- earthquakes were no more catastrophic than the wind and the rain. It was only after Spanish settlement and colonization, with the introduction of structures made of stone and masonry, that quakes became dangerous phenomena.

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect 21st century Southern Californians to go back to living in small grass huts, but the most we can do is continue to improve earthquake-resistant designs. The older quake-vulnerable structures will either go away or be reinforced, in a form of structural darwinism: Only the most quake-resistant buildings will survive in the long run.

Appreciating earthquakes does not mean we morbidly revel in casualties, of course. Deaths and injuries are inevitable consequences of any major quake. But the onus is on human societies to minimize them as much as possible. We must always be prepared for earthquakes -- both during the event and the potential aftermath. We can train ourselves through earthquake drills. We can invest in warning systems than can detect and alert us of seismic waves before they reach the surface. We can educate ourselves on seismic activity to dispel popular myths about quakes, such as "earthquake weather" or the notion of "California falling into the sea."

But we just can't prevent earthquakes themselves. They have happened on this planet before there were humans, and will continue to happen after we're long extinct.

Each year, earthquakes typically claim the lives of 10,000 people worldwide. But in comparison, car accidents claim 1.2 million lives worldwide (including over 30,000 in the U.S. alone) annually. So your risk of succumbing to a quake, or any other natural disaster, is much, much smaller than the human-generated activity of our daily lives.

Most likely the next earthquake you will feel will be a small or moderate one, which will more likely cause a flurry of tweets on Twitter than any significant damage or human harm. So take a moment to appreciate the power of our active planet that you were able to bear witness to.

Pitzer College Divests from Fossil Fuels -- Who's Next?

From Left, Trustee Donald Gould, Professor Brinda Sarathy, student activist Jess Grady-Benson, President Laura Skandera Trombley, and Robert Redford at the LA Press Club | Photo: Courtesy Pitzer College

Pitzer College celebrated Earth Day a little early this year -- as in ten days premature.

But it can be excused: On Saturday, April 12, with college trustee Robert Redford lending his considerable eco-cred to the ceremony at the LA Press Club, President Laura Skandera Trombley announced that Pitzer would be divesting its endowment of fossil-fuel stocks by December 2014. With that decision, the planet can breathe a tad easier.

Its respiration, and ours, will be helped as well by the college's critical and linked decisions to establish an Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance investment policy that will frame future financial decisions; reduce its carbon footprint by 25% over the next two years; establish a segregated environment fund within its endowment to promote campus sustainability, some of the income of which will be directed toward incentivizing changes in community behavior and sustainability projects (And it is discussing investing in the Billion-Dollar Green Challenge that will underwrite energy-efficiency initiatives). Achieving these ambitions goals will not be easy -- actually they will be quite hard -- but the college's trustees, aided by an energized student body and faculty, have rightly decided that this year, as it marks its 50th birthday, Pitzer should go bold. (Full Disclosure: I serve on the college's alumni board, as well as work for Pomona College. Both Pitzer and Pomona are part of the Claremont University Consortium)

It always has. Founded in 1963, with a small faculty and a handful of female students supported by a minuscule endowment on a tiny campus scraped out of Claremont's boulder-studded alluvial soil, it has become one of the best liberal-arts colleges in the country, and not incidentally with one of the most diverse faculty and student bodies. Pitzer's ongoing transformation has occurred in good part by keeping a steady eye on its motto: Provida Futuri. Mindful of the Future.

A Woman of the Woods: Susan R. Schrepfer, 1941-2014

Susan Schrepfer (left) with Forest History Society colleagues Elwood Maunder and Barbara Holman in 1975. | Photo: Courtesy of Forest History Society, Durham NC

Susan Schrepfer, who died on March 3, taught several generations of environmental historians how to see the forest and the trees.

Which is another way of saying that Susan thought large and small, urged her colleagues and readers to integrate big-picture ideas with their localized manifestations, and through her impeccably researched and gracefully written books helped us rethink our complicated (because constructed) relationship to the natural world.

A long-time member of the history department at Rutgers University, Susan earned her academic degrees from UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside. Critical to her craft, though, was her successful stint as a researcher at the Forest History Society (FHS), then located in Santa Cruz (it now calls Durham, NC home). Working through its jam-packed archives, which contain an unparalleled collection of business records of the American timber industry, personal papers of foresters and conservationists, hard-to-find Forest Service records, and long-out-of-print newspapers, and by conducting interviews with some of the key contemporary players, Susan carefully tracked the paper trail that is the historian's special charge.

Martin Luther King, Social Justice, and Streetscape Environmentalism

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King does not get enough credit.

That's a seemingly odd claim to make given that we celebrate his remarkable life in activism through a federal holiday, mark his achievements during February, Black History Month, and every April 4 to pause in remembrance of his brutal assassination. Yet during these commemorative moments, we tend to remember only those aspects of his political engagement that affirm central tenets of American culture, not those that critique it.

Consider the endlessly hyped portion of King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech, wherein he looks forward to the day when his children will live in a society "where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." In January, even ESPN endlessly channeled a version of King's words in a series of in-house ads, a reflection of how much King's moral claim about the power of the individual has become an ideological touchstone.

This refrain's almost sacred quality may explain why, 50 years later, we have forgotten the radical and communal context of King's insight. His was not an individualistic creed. For him, social justice is social; it is collectively defined and derived.

Even those who might be expected to share King's perceptions seem to have forgotten this truth and its essential, animating force. Count environmental justice advocates among those who do not always appreciate his powerful role in their movement's history.

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