The Magnificent Serpentine Manzanita!

Contributed by Bryant Baker

The exquisite bishop or serpentine manzanita (Arctostaphylos obispoensis) is a sight to behold. You can only find it in the Santa Lucia Mountains along California’s Central Coast, primarily in San Luis Obispo County. As one of its common names implies, it has an affinity for serpentine soils.

Here in the rocky, serpentine areas of the mountains you can find it growing alongside other unique plants such as Sargent cypress (as seen in the second photo), Coulter pine, San Luis Obispo sedge, and more.

As with many manzanitas, I’m always drawn to the dead portions of the branches. Known as bark striping, this natural dieback of certain parts of mature plants creates space for lichens to grow. It’s easy to see that lichens don’t grow on the living bark of these manzanitas due to its annual peeling.

I hope you get to come across this magnificent manzanita at some point. If you don’t have it already, pick up a copy of Field Guide to Manzanitas by Michael Kauffmann, Tom Parker, and Michael Vasey, published by Backcountry Press Tom Parker. The second edition is now out and has some excellent information about these beautiful plants. It’s a must-have for any Arctostaphylophile.

How Truth Metastasized Into A Lie – The Fire Suppression Fallacy (Part I)

– The Justification Du Jour to Eliminate Nature –

We are being lied to.

It didn’t start out that way, but as is often the case when money and power are involved, the truth has suffered. And the lie has been crafted to be so compelling, to appear so intuitive, that many of us, including myself, have sometimes unwittingly contributed to its spread.

My career as a champion of the chaparral began in response to the lie. The journey since has been one of pitched battles, political intrigue, and enemies at the gate, but also of inspiring discoveries, triumphs, and friendship. I’m sure you’ve traveled a similar path many times in your life when you have spoken up for yourself, for a friend, or for a cause.

The truth has prevailed in the chaparral, mostly.

  • Large, infrequent, high-intensity wildfires are the natural pattern for chaparral. Past fire suppression has not played a role in altering that pattern.
  • Chaparral is suffering from too much fire, rather than not enough. And the threat is spreading north.
  • Too frequent fires (more than once per 30 years) compromise the chaparral’s biodiversity and can lead to the elimination of the plant community, frequently converting it to non-native grassland.
  • Prescribed fire in chaparral typically causes environmental harm, especially in light of a drying landscape due to human-caused climate change.

The climate has changed not only physically, but socially as well. The anti-Nature pitchfork mob we vanquished in San Diego County more than a decade ago has reappeared and is sweeping down from the plains of Sacramento into the precious wild places we cherish – cool, dense forests, expansive stands of old-growth chaparral, and secret pockets of Great Basin sage. To the mob, all of wild Nature is “overgrown,” full of “fuel”, and waiting to ignite. And they intend to fix it.

The fight for the chaparral in southern California was much easier than what we face now. Since humans have never figured out how to squeeze much monetary value from native shrublands, we never had to face entrenched financial interests. But the beautiful montane and episodic chaparral found in forested regions of the state is hated by those who make money (and advance careers) off of timber. Be it legacy lumber companies, new biomass corporations, the US Forest Service, Cal Fire, or researchers who depend on grants that fund forest research, chaparral is seen as a threat to trees. Demonized as ladder fuels, overgrowth, or brush-fields, chaparral that finds itself as part of the forest community, especially post-fire episodic chaparral, is seen as the enemy.

I’ll forever have the image etched in my mind of Steven Brink, a representative for the California Forestry Association, literally spitting as he described his negative feelings about manzanita and the need to get rid of it in the forest during a US Forest Service tour of the Rim Fire area in 2014. Similar antagonism towards episodic chaparral has led to the environmental devastation now occurring at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

I have been warned many times to stay out of the forest. But I’ve never been able to reconcile what I saw on the ground as I hiked to what I was hearing from those in the forestry world – forests are supposedly “unhealthy” because they are clogged with overgrowth due to a century of fire suppression. Since the public and the media are consistently incapable or unwilling to make distinctions between different ecosystems, “forest” is a proxy for all of Nature. Hence, all of Nature is clogged and overgrown. That fallacy has been taken advantage of by all those who profit from exploiting Nature in all of its manifestations.

The profiteers are not limited to to those who obtain direct financial gain. They also include those who are able to expand bureaucracies, pass legislation that benefits future electoral success, obtain grants to conduct forest research or support land conservancy programs, or those who are just worried about their careers. One doesn’t get far in an agency or an organization that has embraced the fire suppression fallacy if one resists the company line.

The cost of pushing back can be high. The pressure to not offend, to not oppose those who control one’s livelihood, can be overwhelming. Jobs and friends can be lost. I was told by one of my best friends several years ago to “not come off appearing as though you are contradicting the fire suppression story because that will marginalize your ideas to many.” Fair warning. I’ve ended up ignoring that advice and have indeed upset a fair number of people, including the friend who warned me. I’ve made new friends.

The social fabric these days has been torn. Disagreements quickly become personal. If you are aligned with the work we have done at the Chaparral Institute, you’ll find much of what you read below as agreeable. If you had a visceral, negative reaction to the title of this piece, have already been upset with me, or disagreed with what the Chaparral Institute has done, most of what you read below will be contrary to what you believe.

I can’t control any of that, but I can control my own judgement of such things – a realization I’ve finally figured out after spending much of the past year studying Roman history. We are indeed in control of our lives and how we react. A warning I have embraced that has helped me put it all into perspective came from Marcus Aurelius – “The memory of everything is very soon lost in time.”

With such a view, the world looks to be a beautiful place.

Regardless of your views on fire suppression, environmentalists, and other living things, I think it is reasonable to assume that you have a full measure of wonder for Nature within. You enjoy being outdoors and are renewed by wildness. I also think you are probably well aware that the natural environment is at risk. I think we can find common ground there. With that spirit, I’m hoping you can read this series and understand the threat we face with our species’ chronic inability to think beyond ourselves.

“And anyone with a feeling for Nature—a deeper sensitivity—will find it all gives pleasure. Even what seems inadvertent. He’ll find the jaws of live animals as beautiful as painted ones or sculptures. He’ll look calmly at the distinct beauty of old age in men, women, and at the loveliness of children. And other things like that will call out to him constantly—things unnoticed by others. Things seen only by those at home with Nature and its works.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Part II forthcoming.

Despite the rhetoric, dense “episodic” chaparral is a natural, successional response to a forest fire. The growing shrubs, especially Ceanothus species, enrich the soil with nitrogen and provide nursing shade for growing conifers. Photo: Episodic chaparral 12 years after fire in 1937, Sierra Nevada. CalPhotos, UC Berkeley.

It’s still happening as it always has. Episodic chaparral in 2019, six years after the Rim Fire, Stanislaus National Forest, Sierra Nevada.
The US Forest Service’s response to the fragile, post-fire habitat after the 2013 Rim Fire: grinding up episodic chaparral, logging, pile burning, and cows. Photo: Stanislaus National Forest, by Tonja Chi, 2019.

Time to Admit a Mistake in Defaming a Gentle Spirit — An Open Letter to the Sierra Club and the Pacific Crest Trail Association

When three current and former Sierra Club Board members, two of whom are African American, explain how Michael Brune, the Club’s former chief executive officer, got it wrong when he accused John Muir of being a racist, those who value the truth need to take notice (their full essay is provided below).

Unfortunately, the Sierra Club’s Board has refused to acknowledge the truth with the excuse that it doesn’t want to say something that is inconsistent with the Club’s “messaging guidance” and would contradict stories from multiple organizations (i.e. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, POLITICO, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association), all of which were sourced from Brune’s July 22, 2020, attack on Muir (POLITICO 8/16/2021).

No, the Board and Brune need to admit they made a mistake regardless how embarrassing it might be. That’s how apologies work. Their accusations about Muir were based on false information and innuendo. The Board needs to come clean as do other organizations that followed their lead in defaming Muir.

Aaron Mair, who in 2015 became the first Black president of the Sierra Club board, said the attack on Muir overlooked years of organizational work on environmental justice, including committees that reviewed monuments and leaders who were racist. He said Brune did not consult him or the other two Black board members before pushing ahead on what he called a “revisionist” and “ahistorical” account of Muir’s writings, thoughts and life (POLITICO 8/16/2021).

In our effort to inform other environmental groups that had repeated Brune’s false accusations without doing their own research, we reached out to the the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). The organization’s chief executive officer defamed Muir in their summer 2021 magazine. They responded to us by citing Brune’s original attacks. We provided additional information and urged them to reconsider. They haven’t gotten back to us yet.

It’s very difficult during these polarized times to speak the truth, or to express an opinion different from others, much less admit when you’re wrong. Once an alignment has been made with a particular tribe, truth has little meaning if it does not concur with the tribal beliefs. Fallacies are accepted as reality. Members of the tribe blindly follow others to signal their agreement, even when it can kill, as we have seen with rejections of the COVID-19 vaccine.

But speak the truth we must.

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Rudyard Kipling, 1935

Several days after the essay below was published, contradicting Brune’s claims, Brune resigned as the Club’s chief executive officer. We are hoping this is a sign that the entire Board will eventually have the courage to admit their mistake and apologize for falsely defaming a gentle spirit who saw all people, all life, as expressions of the same powerful source, none favored over the other – a perspective that the Club needs to model.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association’s CEO announced her retirement in September.


Who Was John Muir Really?

From the Earth Island Journal
August 11, 2021

Recent media inaccurately represents Muir as a racist. That portrayal could create damaging divisions within the environmental movement.

By Aaron Mair, Chad Hanson, and Mary Ann Nelson

The environmental community is engaged in a deeply important conversation about equity. It holds great promise for a more inclusive, diverse, and powerful movement — one that is progressing toward an equitable future while confronting some of the troubling aspects of its history. As long time environmental leaders, we have gotten together to write about Sierra Club founder John Muir, who hasn’t been immune to present-day scrutiny. Muir’s story is complicated. Like many of us, he had his blind spots and prejudices, particularly in his early writings. But also, like many of us, he increased his knowledge and understanding of people different than him as he gained more exposure and experience. In all, he kickstarted a new era of environmentalism, fueled by ideals that are still relevant as we continue to face a series of ecological crises.

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