There's Hope in the High Country

Great Basin National Park

Pinyon pine prevelant in the Great Basin.  

Pinyon pine prevelant in the Great Basin.  

What first struck me about the Great Basin was the numerous high mountain peaks within the “basin.” Driving through Nevada, we took advantage of the space in-between and stopped for a few days at Great Basin National Park, one of the many places that we routinely discuss during the long drive from one National Park to another. Rising above the blue-green sea of sagebrush, I realized that I didn’t properly pay attention to my high school geography lesson. I missed a few mountains and valleys. The Great Basin National Park brochure sets me straight. “It’s not one, but many basins, separated by mountain ranges roughly parallel, north to south, basin, and range alternating in seemingly endless geographic rhythm.”

Environmental extremes, highs, and lows, a string of unique biomes all in a row. That’s my kind of place. We camped at 7,600 feet and after the first day of altitude acclimation, we hiked the Timber Creek Loop Trail up to 10,000 feet elevation. What a change to be in the spruce aspen forest, making friends with a dozen wild turkeys that paced back and forth as we enjoyed our lunch. What a joy to see the small waving leaves of quaking aspen trees, delicate paper-thin spruce cones, spiny prickly pear, manzanita, and hairy mountain mahogany all living along the same trail.

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But nearby, were the granddaddy of environmental barometers, the 3,000 to 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine forest and the glacier on Wheeler Peak. Two unique relics of bygone ages. Ecosystems that are distinct and thank goodness, not yet extinct. The glaciers and the bristlecone pine endured the folly of history and the willy-nilly externalities of human cultures. We didn’t design systems that would impact these little gems, we just neglected to properly understand that our resource consuming society is harmful. No one said, “hey, let’s warm things up a bit. Let’s melt ancient relic ice and kill some trees that are older than the history of human civilization.”  People had no clue what we were doing to our environments when we cut down forests and started burning fossil fuels. We still don’t understand how things fit together.  

Alive or dead? It is hard to tell with a bristlecone pine. It only take one branch to stay alive. 

Alive or dead? It is hard to tell with a bristlecone pine. It only take one branch to stay alive. 

When we got to the bristlecone pine grove, we were greeted by a lively group of 20 high school students from Cedar City, Utah. They were having a snack and resting near a Park Service interpretive sign. The sign was one of many that explained the special environment of the bristlecone pines.  “An increment borer is a specialized tool used to determine the age of trees, without hurting the tree.” We could hear an adult voice instructing them, “Be sure to look for micro trash. Pick up anything you see, even if it isn’t yours.”

When I was in college, I decided I wanted to take care of trees. Now, that seems so pretentious. With our climate changing it ways we didn’t foresee, caring for trees is really a very tall order.  A hike in the ancient forest was an opportunity to see first-hand just how well are these precious relics? Are they cared for? Are they in good hands?

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The old and the younger trees together. 

The old and the younger trees together. 

These ol’ gals, even after 3,500 years are still cranking out the cones. Beautiful creek basins were full of cones. We should all be blessed with such sexy virility! The proud skeletal remains of trees dearly departed were now their own handsome headstone monument.  Next to the time worn troupers, young, 100 years or so, trees in the landscape grasped to the rock rubble that substituted for soil.

Looking across the hillside, it was green, alive, and it looked like a forest; a beautiful vibrant community of vegetative companions.  I’m sure it isn’t as well and prosperous as it appears to the casual naked eye, but it felt good to be there. I was moved to reach out and touch a twisted tree trunk. “I love you. You are beautiful. Hang in there.”


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We continued beyond the bristlecone pine grove up to a rock glacier nestled below Wheeler Peak. No longer were we among the trees, but above the pines within a series of glacier moraine. There were no birds or insects to be found, and a dark cloud was materializing above. There was no soil, only angular rocks piled into repeating rows below the ice field. We scrambled up along the trail with the side walls of the canyon enclosing us in semi-metamorphic layers of multicolored rock material waiting to crumble.

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Out of place, and without context, we saw a scattering of twelve inch, brightly colored, red, blue, green, yellow, and white plastic balls. “What is going on here?” It looked like either art or science. It was hard to tell. We were greeted by a group of college students, from Fargo North Dakota.  They were tracking and mapping the glacier using pulsed laser light, the most current survey science - LIDAR (Light Directing and Ranging). The balls were their reference points.

The question was on everyone’s mind: “How is the glacier doing?” This was the fifth year of measurements and they were pleased to say that it is looking good. How fast is it shrinking? The winter snow fall is replenishing the ice and it is all moving very slowly like a glacier should be moving. We were glad to see someone is taking notice, gathering measurements, collecting data, and following the health of Wheeler’s rock glacier. Someone cares enough to be watching for good news or the bad news.

Climate change is real, and we did it.

But, sometimes I am a dreamer, an environmental idealist, an eco-friendly romantic. Weren’t the ol' masters Henry David Thoreau, Ansel Adams, Walt Whitman, and Aldo Leopold at least part-time optimists? I know they had their good days. I want to stand next to them. 

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Today was my good day.  I want the bristlecone pine forest to be here for thousands of years to come. I want glaciers to move very, very slowly. I want mountains full of trees and valleys full of clean running water.  I want all the basins to be great. I hope the students want this too.

Today, I have hope for the high country.

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