Thursday, February 18, 2016

An Important Island in Southern California Gains Permanent Protection

San Gorgonio and the San Bernardino Mountains from the vicinity of Idyllwild
There's an island in Southern California. There are lots of islands, actually, and some, like Catalina and the Channel Islands, are famous. They are also surrounded by water. This island is a bit different. Instead of water, the island is surrounded  by lowlands and urban development. The island is the San Bernardino Mountains, one of several mountain ranges that form a ring around the Los Angeles Basin and Inland Empire.
 The range includes the tallest mountain in Southern California, San Gorgonio Peak (11,499 feet), and a high alpine ridge that has a dozen or so peaks exceeding 10,000 in height. It has the southernmost aspen grove in North America, and evidence of the southernmost glaciers (even a few small glacial lakes). The ruggedness of the range has precluded the kinds of developments and "improvements" that have spoiled many other beautiful places. The Whitewater River, with its headwaters near San Gorgonio Peak, flows a vertical distance of two miles to the desert floor, unimpeded by dams or other developments. Few such rivers are left in the state (it's probably fair to say that a dam would have been foolhardy, as the river crosses the San Andreas fault, and engineering would be very...iffy).
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

The mountain range is a treasure. In my youth, I honed my hiking and camping skills in these mountains, and from them I learned to love topographic maps. It pains me that I don't have digital images of the sights I saw in these peaks forty years ago when I regularly backpacked in and out of the canyons and across the mountaintops. One of my most vivid teenage memories is a hike I took into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Whitewater River. The camp was on a terrace above the creek, and there was an expansive view eastward into the desert around Palm Springs. As the sun set, we could see thunderheads rising in the far distance, and the nighttime was punctuated with flashes of lightning. I had never felt so isolated in my life, and that is not a common feeling for the people of SoCal. It was exhilarating, and I loved every moment.
Source: National Park Service
I want to tell a story. The Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California were once much larger. This was because of the lowering of sea level by the glacial ice ages at various times during the last two million years (so much water was locked up in ice on land worldwide that sea level dropped several hundred feet). The islands were never actually connected to the mainland, but the distance between them was much less than it is today. Somewhere in that stretch of time, a herd of Columbia Mammoths (or a pregnant one) was panicked into the ocean surf (or perhaps they smelled food on the islands), and they (or it) swam the 5 or 6 miles to the island. Elephants come equipped with a snorkel; they're good swimmers. They thrived on the island, but the ice age ended. Sea level rose, first shrinking the size of the island, and then dividing it into four much smaller islands. Food became scarce. The mammoths continued to produce offspring, but it was only the smaller animals that could survive in the restricted environment. They could get by on less. Because the runts survived, they were the most successful at passing on their genes. The Columbian Mammoths, some of whom stood as tall as 14 feet at the shoulder, got smaller.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey, via

And smaller. Eventually, a race of pygmy mammoths (Mammuthus exilis) evolved. Some of the adults stood no higher than 7 feet at the shoulder, and weighed one ton, instead as much as ten. Eventually though, even small size wasn't enough. They became extinct about 12,000 years ago.
There is a lesson here, of course. All good stories have them. The environment that supported the mammoths became smaller and more limited, inexorably, until it was strained beyond recovery. The animals disappeared, and we are today deprived of what must have been a fascinating creature. Think about what has happened to Southern California in the last century. The population has expanded to tens of millions of people, and the wild lands that surround the urban valleys have become smaller and more isolated. The ecosystem is breaking down, as animals are no longer able to cross urban corridors to find others of their kind. They retreat farther into their shrinking habitats, and populations plummet. If there is no intervention, they will simply disappear. The bighorn sheep, mountain lions, bears, foxes, and condors will all be gone.

But this post is not pessimistic. Far from it. This is about a piece of tremendously good news that came to pass this week. For years, California Senator Feinstein has been promoting the idea of several national monuments or parks in Southern California. The political gridlock in Congress has prevented anything from being done, but President Obama has used his authority under the National Antiquities Act to declare three new national monuments. Two of them are in the Mojave Desert, in the Castle Mountains, and in the landscape between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. The third, Snow to Sand National Monument, brings protection to the highest ridges of the San Bernardino Mountains to the desert floor at Morongo, and even more importantly, linking the mountains to Joshua Tree National Park. This has the effect of bringing permanent protection to a very scenic wilderness area, but even more importantly, producing an intact ecosystem that will give declining wildlife populations a fighting chance to survive, especially as our global climate warms up.

By preserving an unbroken habitat from just above sea level to 11,499 feet, there were be room for upward migration of animal and plant species as the lower levels become hotter and drier. Few places in the world offer such a range of available habitats. There is so little left, so I'm glad to see these efforts to protect such a fascinating region. The mountains of my youth!

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