The trip began with a look at one of the most efficient...and environmentally disruptive...ways of mining. By literally peeling away the mountains of West Virginia layer by layer, coal companies can extract all the layers of coal within the mountain, including layers too thin to be mined by other techniques. Unfortunately, this process requires the bulk of the mountain to be piled elsewhere, always in an adjacent stream valley.
Coal washing operations create a heavy-metal-rich sludge, which is also impounded in the stream valleys. Some impoundments have failed, releasing sludge into streams and communities. The continuous blasting required to literally move mountains shakes nearby homes. If concern for global warming does not make you want to turn from coal, a visit to a mountaintop removal site just might.
On our trip, we were taken on flights over mountaintop mines by volunteer pilots with Southwings an organization dedicated to raising awareness of environmental problems by flying people over areas affected.
The aerial view is really the only way to comprehend the magnitude of this problem. We also visited West Virginia native Larry Gibson at his historic family home on Kayford Mountain. Larry has resisted lucrative offers to sell his land to coal interests, and instead accepted the role of environmental activist that fate has forced on him. We count him among the true heroes of the environmental movement.
California is also a Pacific rim state, with miles of Pacific coast waters and ports that serviced world class fisheries for Tuna, sardines and salmon. The best known is probably the sardine industry chronicled in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row.
We started this part of the trip in Santa Cruz at the National Marine Fisheries Lab. Here we heard an excellent presentation on the types of research done at the lab. Most interesting was to science done with the specific goal of informing the commission that regulates the fisheries.
We had a great day to visit this city, and spent the afternoon as tourists, enjoying one of our last days in California.
Our last day was spent at the Monterey Aquarium. We were fortunate to visit on the day that they had invited representatives from numerous organizations concerned with ocean conservation to present. There were so many people to talk with, and perspectives to hear that it was hard to find time to look at the fish!
Added bonuses to our visit to Monterey were some good dining on (sustainably harvested) seafood and a look at "Docs" actual, still standing having outlasted the canneries of cannery row by many years.
We had time for a quick peek at the fabulous scenery of the Big Sur, one last game of sack on the beach, then it was back to camp, pack up, and fly home.
In many ways, there are three Californias, the urban centers along the coast, the vast tracts of agricultural land, and the sparsely populated deserts, mountains, and north country. This part of the trip investigated the ways civilization reaches out into these wilder areas.
We arrived in Yosemite in time to set up camp in light of the setting sun reflected of the glacially carved cliffs of the valley.
Yosemite national Park was one of the first National Parks, and the location of a defining struggle between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot over the meaning and value of wilderness. The immediate subject of debate was the City of San Francisco's desire to construct the O'Shaughnessy Dam, flooding the Hetch Hetchy valley within the boundaries of the newly formed Yosemite Park. Muir's defense of wilderness was based on its spiritual value, and led to the national recognition of the Sierra Club as a defender of wilderness. Pinchot's concept of the utility of wilderness as a source of resources is best manifest in the Forest Service (which he was instrumental in founding) motto "Land of many uses".
Wes at the O'Shaughnessy Dam (above) and the site of John Muir's cabin along the Merced River in Yosemite Valley (right). Hetch Hetchy Valley rivaled Yosemite Valley in its beauty prior to construction of the dam. That we would not today consider construction of such a dam in a national park suggests that though Muir lost the battle, and debatably even the war, he did win our hearts.
The bulk of our time in Yosemite was devoted to a hike up to Nevada and Vernal falls. The pictures beside and below are from that hike, taken to allow us all to experience the grandeur of the place.
The other side of the mountains is yet another world. The high desert of California lies in the rain shadow of the Sierra. The majority of the water in this area flows from the mountains to the west. Water from many of these streams, and the alluvial aquifers they replenish, is now diverted to the cities of southern California. Owens Lake no longer exists. When Mono Lake was threatened with a similar fate, the Mono Lake Committee formed to protect the lake and its waters. Following an epic struggle, the lake, and the ecosystem it hosts, were protected. Our visit was primarily to meet with representatives of the Committee, and discuss their history of environmental protection.
The committee's bookstore and information center
The whole group in front of tuffa towers
Sunrise at June Lake, out campsite in the Sierra
The central valley of California, prior to transformation, is described as having been an "American Serengeti". The two major rivers, the San Joaquin and Sacramento, and their many tributaries from the Sierra Nevada flooded annually, depositing rich alluvial soils and creating vast wetlands. The streams were habitat for prolific salmon runs, the marshes home for immense flocks of waterfowl, the grasslands home for herds of Tulle Elk. It is estimated that thousands of Grizzly bears inhabited the valley.
Now the only bears to be seen are on the state flag. The rivers have been dammed, the land leveled, the seasonal flood waters held back to be distributed throughout the valley as irrigation waters. The region has been transformed into one of the worlds great agricultural districts. The economic benifits are inarguable, so is the loss of habitat.
A few areas remain where it is possible to get a glimpse of what the valley must have looked like prior to its agricultural transformation. Here, in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge large wetlands with native tulle reeds provide sanctuary for migrating waterfowl. The adjacent Kesterson area is infamous for having had water poisoned by runoff from irrigation projects.
Historically, the transformation of the valley began with the mining operations following he gold rush. Here, miles of stream valley still show the effects of dredging for gold. Elsewhere, hydraulic mining stripped topsoil from areas in the foothills and led to silting up of channels and flooding in the valley. Some of California's first environmental legislation was aimed at curbing these mining practices.
The San Luis reservoir is the lynch pin of the irrigation system on the western side of the central valley. Water from the north is stored here during periods of high discharge, to be released throughout the summer. Nearly all of the water enters and leaves through the canals.
The Nature Conservancy works to protect land through outright purchase and also working with local landowners and communities. We visited the Consumnes Preserve, where levees have been breached in places to allow a more natural flooding cycle. Here students hear about the benefits of this program, which include groundwater recharge and increased health of out-migrating salmon smolt.