Patricia Prijatel

Writer, Reader, Watcher

IMG_2869President Franklin Roosevelt called forests the “lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” Forests absorb potentially dangerous carbon dioxide while producing healthy oxygen. They trap dust, ash, pollen, and smoke, keeping them out of the air and our lungs.  According to American Forests, a single tree can produce enough oxygen in one year to support two people, while absorbing 48 pounds of carbon dioxide and trapping ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other greenhouse gases.

IMG_1589On June 27, 2018, the Spring Fire in southern Colorado was started by a man grilling meat in an outdoor pit. Within two weeks, it had become the state’s second largest fire in history, burning more than 108,000 acres.

The fire was both a natural and an unnatural disaster. Wildfires have always been a fixture of the Colorado mountain landscape and, in many cases, have been important in cleaning and pruning a forest and improving its health.

But this is not a normal pattern. In the 25 years from 1950 to 1985, the United States had only nine historically significant wildfires—those that have destroyed large swaths of land or property. By contrast, we have had nine in just the past seven years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. We’ve gone from one every three years to an average of 1.2 a year—more than triple the incidence.

In 2017 alone, wildfires burned more than 9 million acres of America’s forests, and scientists are unequivocal about the connection between this unprecedented level of burning and climate change. “Human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984,” wrote John Abatzoglou of the University of Idaho and Park Williams of Columbia University in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)in 2016. Note that word: caused. He is not saying this is just a connection. Climate change causedby humans has doubled the area that has burned since 1984. Humans > climate change > forest fires.

In the face of all this, it’s human to feel powerless. But if we care about our planet, we’ll use what power we have—often. Here’s how.

  1. Make your elected officials accountable. The biggest decision on land-use policies, adoption of alternative energies, and dependence on fossil fuels are made by city councils, state legislators, and the U.S. Congress and Senate. Contact your local, regional, and national representatives and let them know you see climate change as an essential issue that affects your family and community’s health and livelihood. Contact them regularly. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter and engage them in conversation on this issue. Share related articles with them. Get this on their agenda.

One fact to keep in mind: 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that climate change is happening, and it is caused by humans.

If you don’t know how to find your representative, Common Cause has a site where you can just put it your zip code and get contact information for your state and local officials at https://www.commoncause.org/find-your-representative/

  1. Educate yourself. Check reputable organizations to learn the essential facts on how humans are affecting the climate. My favorites: The Yale Program on Climate Change(http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/), the Climate Reality Project (https://www.climaterealityproject.org), and the Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org).

I also belong to the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy, the National Parks Foundation, and I support the Natural Resources Defense Council. There are hundreds of local and national nature and environmental organizations that will keep you connected and informed. Just Google it and find what fits.

  1. Talk about it to friends.Climate change is a fact, not a theory, and we need not be hesitant to bring it up socially. According to a report by the Yale Program on Climate Change, 69 percent of respondents in the United States believe global warming is real, and 56 percent are worried about it. Butfewer than a third of those ever talk about it to family or friends. Why not? Often because nobody else is talking about it and we’re too polite to bring up the subject.

Here’s a troubling statistic that proves this point:  climate change was virtually ignored in the presidential debates of 2016, with only five minutes and 27 seconds, or 2 percent of the total time, given to the topic, according to Media Matters. Not one climate-related question was asked by the moderators.

I offer advice on how to talk about climate change on my Psychology Todayblog:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/all-is-well/201803/can-we-break-the-spiral-silence-climate-change?amp

  1. Change your consumption habits. Much of the stress on the planet comes from fossil fuels burned while producing and delivering foods and consumer goods.
  • Buy local, especially food. It will be fresher, healthier, and will taste better, plus it won’t have to take a train, airplane, semi, and delivery truck to get to you. And you’ll be supporting small producers who generally are more energy-conscious than larger conglomerates.
  • Challenge your need for every purchase.
  • Buy gently used. I have a fabulous resale shop in town where a woman my size sends her “old” clothes. I get to wear fabulous name brands I would not buy otherwise and they are in great shape.
  1. Avoid disposables. Basically, stay away from any single-use product, especially water bottles.
  • Shop with reusable bags, use refillable drink cups, eliminate straws unless you are disabled or otherwise need them, avoid paper plates and, if you must have plastic for a picnic or camping, buy washable products. I bought a stainless-steel thermal drink cup with a stainless-steel straw and I have been using it for more than a year. It makes drinks taste better and keeps them cool forever, plus I get discounts when I refill it at the local convenience store.
  • Buy the largest container you can handle for shampoo, juice, milk, or other packaged products. If possible, find a store that offers refills.
  • Use soap rather than packaged bath gel. Consider soap shampoo—it’s actually pretty effective. Use a vinegar rinse in a reusable spray bottle for a conditioner. I do this, and I get many compliments on my hair.
  1. Eat a plant-based diet. Plants use significantly less fossil fuels than meats. Especially try to cut down on beef, which not only requires as much as ten times the fuel as plant foods, but also comes from cows that give off methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to man-made climate change.

Beans, seeds, nuts, and cheese are excellent sources of protein. And, according to Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel, who did the math, “Giving up beef once a week in favor of beans, over the course of a year, is the equivalent of not burning 38 gallons of gas, or of trading in 12 incandescent bulbs for LED.”

  1. Walk, bike, or use public transportation when you can. Limit your air travel. Buy fuel efficient cars, ideally hybrids. I admit to failing at this. I live in Iowa, have a cabin in Colorado, a daughter in Vermont and a son in Turkey, so I spend more time on the road and in airplanes than is environmentally healthy. I try to make up the difference elsewhere.
  2. Support alternative energy.
  • Buy into an alternative energy plan with your utility company, if available.
  • If you’re replacing your stove, electric models are generally more environmentally sound than gas, especially if your local utility uses alternative energy.
  • Install solar panels for at least some of your energy needs; they are decreasing in price and becoming more easily available.
  1. Recycle. If your community offers a regular pick-up service, as mine in Des Moines does, this is easy. If not, search out a recycling center. We have to do our own makeshift recycling at our remote Colorado cabin, which requires some serious organization because different nearby towns take different products and have different requirement.
  • Buy products that can be recycled or are made from recycled materials.
  • Compost. This is a natural way to recycle food products. You can buy handy bins online that do the work for you. My son Josh has one on his terrace in Istanbul.
  1. Vote. Support candidates whose policies promote a healthy environment.

 

 

 

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My mantra when we were building was, “It’s just a mountain cabin.” So, pretty much, it’s just a mountain cabin, but a beautiful welcoming home and I truly love it. The housing appraiser called it a “friendly little place” and my sister Phyllis says it reminds her of a dollhouse.

It’s a tiny charmer, built with love and by my family—the siblings and nieces and nephews who still live in Colorado all had a hand in it. My brother Ed and his son Matt built the main part: the exterior, a simple double-garage sized rectangle, 480-square-feet, with a green metal roof. The rest of us finished the interior and built the decks.

Our kitchen cabinets are antique cupboards from Pella, Iowa. The coffee table is a wooden icebox my dad made sometime in the 1950s. The heavy wood toolbox he used to lug tools all over Pueblo when he built his house sits along one wall. The bed is a walnut four-poster that Joe and I got from Goodwill when we were first married in 1970. If I did it again, I would have more windows, but those we do have bring in the Colorado sun and light up the place like a welcoming lantern.

 

 

 

 

We’re all off the grid, with solar power, propane gas, a composting toilet, a small wood heating stove, and well water. Our only utility is the phone line and that is erratic. Cell coverage is minimal because we’re in a mountain valley.

Our deck faces the meadow and the mountain, with the back of the cabin to the road. There’s little human activity on the road, although we often see signs of bear and deer and, once, a mountain lion, on it. The only people who ever use it are family, friends, or people who are lost, usually looking for the scout camp. We have to tell campers they can’t get there from here, that our road is a dead end and they have to turn around and drive another 45 minutes back and around, even though it’s only a mile away.

This is an excerpt from my book about the East Peak Fire and its aftereffects, tentatively called Burn Scars.

A third of the recently burned forests in the American West will never regenerate, according to research led by Colorado State University foresters and published in the journal Ecology Letters.

“In many places, forests are not coming back after fires,” says Camille Stevens-Rumann, assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at CSU.

When forestry scientists studied burned forests in Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, they found no seedlings—none, zero—in one-third of all the sites. These areas will most likely not return as forests, but as shrublands, a consequence of climate change. These forests were too dry to begin with and their fires burned too hot, which killed not only their trees but their ability to grow new trees.

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Healthy aspens growing alongside locusts on our ridge four years after the East Peak Fire of 2013.

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A three-year-old seedling planted on the burned ridge is surrounded by wildflowers and downed trees.

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Shrubs and weeds are replacing centuries-old trees.

Our ridges burned exceptionally hot in the East Peak Fire of 2013, leaving much of our forest with hydrophobic soil–soil that burned so hot it had a waxy cover afterward that  repelled water, hence the name, which translates to “afraid of water.” In the years since the fire, we have not seen a single evergreen seedling grow naturally in the burned areas. Aspens have regenerated beautifully, however; their underground root system survived the fire. Starting in 2014, we’ve been replanting with evergreens from the Colorado State Forest Service Seedling Program. Most of the  pines, spruces, and firs have survived so far, but some have been crowded out by scrub oaks and locusts. The forest seems naturally inclined to come back as shrubland.

Our lack of tree regeneration is typical of what researchers observed.  Across the sites and throughout all the states studied, low–or no–regrowth was the standard.

“We expect variability in how long forests take to recover after wildfires, but the decrease in tree regeneration between the late 20th and early 21st century was pretty striking, and it’s consistent with what we expect to see as climate becomes warmer and drier,” says University of Montana fire ecology Professor Philip Higuera.

“Even if we plant trees in those areas, it’s unlikely to be successful,” Camille Stevens-Rumann. “We need to start expecting that these landscapes aren’t going to look the same in the future, whether it’s reduced density of trees or no longer a forest.”

One solution is to plant different types of trees that might be more suited to a hotter and drier environment, she says.

We’ll keep planting and watching on our little plot of land. We know the forest will never again be what it was, but with help we hope it will at least be a forest of some sort.

 

 

 

I can see the pirate on the mountain from the window in front of my desk in the cabin.  It’s a formation of trees and rocks that create a Johnny Depp sort of swashbuckler, with features defined by 50-foot ponderosa pines poking out of granite skin. He has a pert nose, neat beard, and a large, graceful hat; one eye squints and the other one is covered with a patch. He’s maybe a thousand feet in diameter, about a fourth of the height of the section of mountain we can see from our land. Can you see him in the center of the photo below? It takes a little imagination, but once you see him, he’s always there.

In the trees that form the top of his hat sits a tiny miner’s cabin, built by neighbors more than 100 years ago. In the ravine to the left of the pirate is their mine, which never yielded anything other than a bad back. The cabin is often a stopping off place for hikers climbing the peak—the tin roof still provides shelter. (Photo from 2012)IMG_1473

The pirate was perhaps the largest casualty of the 2013 fire, at least in terms of volume.

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Most of his eye and nose are gone, his beard a pale shadow, barely visible against the rock of the mountain. His eye patch, plume, and part of his hat are mostly alive, the rest is burned away. We haven’t been up to check on it, but we hear the miner’s shack is also gone. (Photo from 2016)

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The bear lived in this singed grove, about 30 feet from the cabin

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The muddy print on our porch measured 6.5 inches. Smaller than our neighbor, so it was a different bear.

We hear a shuffling, then see a movement in front of us, a shape on the boulder less than five feet from us. A furry foot is reaching from the rock to the deck. A big furry foot. Attached to a bear. Seems he’s planning on coming onto the deck.

“Shoo!” I shout. Seriously, this works on black bears. He probably weighs three times as much as me, even though he is fairly small—he looks like he is only a year or two old. Plus he has some pretty serious claws going on. Still, he runs away when I yell at him. He trundles up the hill toward the shed then stops, turns, and looks at me, wondering if I am serious. “Shoo!” I shout again, clapping my hands. This time he lumbers all the way to the road. He stays there and watches us. I yell at him again. He stays put.

He’s the mangy fellow who has invited himself to be our neighbor, moving in within throwing distance of the cabin, in a cove of trees that dips into the creek. His coat is dirty beige and looks like the stuffing from a 100-year-old mattress. But he usually leaves us alone. When we work outside, he calmly grazes in the grass just yards away from us, barely paying attention to us. Until now, we’ve not appeared to be worth his time.

I shout at him again. “Get out of here!” He looks at me. Shrugs. “Shoo! Get!” He finally bumbles down the road, muttering to himself, his ratty butt swaying with each step.

The next morning, we find a muddy paw print right next to our door, facing the cabin. The other print is about five feet up the wall.  We measure them: 6.5 inches. Smaller than the bear we saw, so it was probably a different one. After that, we lock the door at night.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a book I am writing about the East Peak Fire, tentatively titled Burn Scars. Read more about it on my Books page.