Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Yosemite Conservancy to help restore damaged areas in Rim fire

The Yosemite Conservancy is raising money to restore damage from the Rim fire, which has charred more than 200,000 acres of wildland in the Stanislaus National Forest and part of Yosemite National park.

The conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and improving Yosemite, will use donations to help restore trails, facilities and natural habitat in the region.

“We anticipate that significant work will be needed to restore areas affected in the park once the heroic efforts of firefighters are completed,” said conservancy president Mike Tollefson.

Donations to the Yosemite Fire Restoration Fund can be made online at yosemiteconservancy.org/fire or by mailing a contribution to Yosemite Conservancy, Yosemite Fire Restoration Fund, 101 Montgomery, Suite 1700, San Francisco, CA 94104.

To view areas of the park, visit Yosemite Conservancy’s webcams at http://www.yosemiteconservancy.org/webcams.

 Most of Yosemite remains open, smoke free and accessible three entrances — Highway 41, fhe south entrance, and Highway 140, a western entrance, and the east entrance at Tioga Pass. Highway 120 remains closed from the west.

Up-to-date information about the Rim Fire is on the park’s website at: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/rimfire.htm.

More evidence linking poison at pot farms to wildlife deaths

A scarce mountain animal called the fisher — a cat-sized relative of the weasel — is dying from rat poison used in illegal marijuana fields along the southern Sierra Nevada, researchers say in a new study released last week.

The study bolsters last year’s research from scientists at University of California, Davis, who said it appeared the rat poison found in the bodies of dead fishers came from the hidden pot farms.

The latest study was done by a team from UC Davis, the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, UC Berkeley and the Integral Ecology Research Center in Humboldt County.  It was published in the journal Conservation Letters.

There are only 46 adult female fishers left in this region, researchers said. The animal is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act for both California and the federal government.

In the study published last week, scientists reported on the amount of poisons found at more than 300 illegal plots and compared the locations of these sites with the home ranges and survival of the 46 female fishers.

The evidence leads researchers to believe the illegal pot farms, not rural developments or agriculture, were the problem. The fishers in the study were radio-tracked. Many were not observed into rural, urban or agricultural areas where rodenticides are often used legally.

Some fishers have died from eating the flavored poison or eating prey that had recently ingested the poisons. But the exposure may also weaken or confuse healty fishers, resulting in death from other causes, such as predation or traffic.

Scientists add that other animals with dwindling populations might be affected too. The species include the wolverine, marten, great gray owl, California spotted owl and Sierra Nevada red fox.

Fire season starts early, air-quality warnings will follow

There already have been brush fires around O’Neals, Millerton Lake, Porterville and Fresno. Residents are fleeing flames in Southern California. With dry grasslands and forests after another subpar wet season, this could be a very ugly fire season.

The immediate concern is danger to residents, firefighters and homes. Air quality is a secondary concern, but it’s worth noting because it can become a wider public health concern. Pay attention to the warnings from air authorities.

Remember June 2008? There were thousands of fires sparked by lightning. Columns of smoke drifted into the San Joaquin Valley from many directions.

For about a week, dirty air simultaneously breached both the ozone and particle pollution standards. The double whammy happened again in July 2008, though it wasn’t as bad as that June episode.

Fires are known for soot or particle pollution, which can make the air hazardous to breathe. Ozone-creating gases also come from fires. It’s no coincidence that 2008 was the last time the Valley had more than 125 breaches of the ozone standard.

Ozone is a corrosive gas that damages the lungs. Over time, it can create a kind of scarring in lung tissue, health researchers say.

Soot is considered to be PM-2.5, microscopic pollution that evades the body’s defenses and sometimes passes from the lungs into the blood stream.

Older people, small children and folks with lung or heart problems should stay indoors when they hear the warnings from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Former lawmaker Coelho opposes Merced River Plan

A voice from the past has joined the backlash against the National Park Service’s plan to protect the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.

Tourism and business leaders in communities, such as Oakhurst, around Yosemite National Park are opposing the proposal, which would remove an ice-skating rink, a bicycle rental business and a few other amenities.

Now former Congressman Tony Coelho, who wrote an amendment to include the Merced River in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) , is opposing the removal of the amenities, saying the law was only intended to include the Merced River outside of Yosemite National Park to the west.

Coelho, once a powerful Democrat based in Merced, wrote a letter saying Yosemite Valley should not be considered wilderness. “Yosemite Valley should be left as it is,” he wrote.

The public comment period ends April 30 on the long-debated Merced River Plan, which has been in and out of court for the last decade. Park leaders have spent the last three years rewriting the plan to comply with court orders and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Public can see foothill conservancy this month

Bee photographer Diana Baldrica took this shot of wildflowers on a table top mountain in the conservancy.

A reader asked a good question after reading my story on the Sierra Foothill Conservancy: “A milestone for wildflowers,cow pies and flat-top mountains.”

“How can I see this place?” the reader asked.

The conservancy has two opportunities this month — 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 13 at the McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 27 at the Ewell Fine Gold Creek Preserve. Directions are on the links.

Public access is always an important issue, because people want to see natural treasures. The open public days give people that opportunity.

Bee photographer was part of snow-surveying crew

Fresno Bee photographer Mark Crosse — yes, his name is very similar to mine — took the stunning photographs in the high Sierra for my story about the snowpack today. But he came back talking about more than just the gorgeous scenery.

Mark Crosse’s photo of Blackcap Basin, taken from PG&E’s helicopter on Tuesday.

Snowpack photo assignments usually involve a quick helicopter ride to one mountain meadow where you take a picture of hydrographers. Not this time.

Crosse wound up as part of the crew, writing down the record of snow measurement at each of the five stops that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. made Tuesday in the Sierra. In these times of economic strain, PG&E has streamlined its operation, so everybody gets involved.

The photographer said he really didn’t know what to expect. He found that PG&E hydrographer Christine Bohrman and pilot Brett Hendricks were amiable companions and keeping records was not difficult.

“It was a fantastic day flying in a helicopter, seeing the Sierra up close and just being part of it,” he said. “My name is in the register as the record keeper for those places.”

The places included wind-swept Blackcap Basin above 10,000 feet in the Kings River watershed. These high Sierra basins are amazing to see in summer, but Crosse had the opportunity to photograph one from a helicopter in March with snow everywhere.

That stop simply was not usually part of the itinerary in past years.

Crosse and I have backpacked for  stories at The Bee over the last 18 years — Mount Whitney, Half Dome, lengthy sections of the John Muir Trail. He is no stranger to interesting outdoor photography. But he said this assignment stands out.

“This assignment is on my list as one of the best experiences I’ve had at The Bee,” he said.

Fed budget cuts might delay Tioga opening in Yosemite

The big federal budget cuts — known as sequestration — might delay the reopening of Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park this spring, the National Park Service says.

That could take a bite out of the tourist business along the Eastern Sierra.  If the road is closed, hordes of Yosemite tourists can’t drive out 9,945-foot Tioga Pass to Lee Vining, Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes.

Tioga Road, the key east-west artery across the Sierra in this part of the range, is closed after the first significant snow in autumn. Often, it reopens by Memorial Day. On big snowfall years, such as 2011, 2005 and 1998, the snow plows are working well into June.

But this is not one of those years. The Sierra snowpack is 62% of average right now. Yosemite’s high country might be a little more or a little less, but it is not high enough to worry about 20-foot snow drifts in early June.

One of the sadder stories I have covered in Yosemite was the death of a snow plow operator in mid-June 1995. His bulldozer was crushed by a huge slab of ice that broke loose and slid down the slippery granite at Olmsted Point in the high country.

Since then, there has been an abundance of caution when plowing the snow from this road.

This year, the reopening could be complicated if the Sierra is hit with late March and April snowstorms. But if the spring melt gets going early, the delay from the sequester may not be a big problem.

Folks on the Eastern Sierra stay pretty close to this issue. For updates, check here for Twitter and here for Facebook. Yosemite’s updates on Tioga and Glacier Point road openings can be found here.

Dry months hurt, but a few storms could make us forget

Remember those stories last week about a record-setting, scary-sounding dry spell for the combined months of  January and February? You’ll forget all about them if we see a series of storms this month and next.

The record dry time is actually in the Northern Sierra, the most important watershed in the state, as my Sacramento Bee colleague Matt Weiser wrote. That snowpack melts into the state’s biggest reservoirs.

At the federal pumps near Tracy in the south delta.

But the Northern Sierra is actually in better shape than it was at this time last year. So is the Southern Sierra. The snow from the big storms in November and December is mostly still up there. It hasn’t melted.

The huge reservoirs in Northern California — Shasta, Oroville, Trinity — are all holding an above-average amount of water right now. We’re not hearing anything yet about water restrictions in the Bay Area.

The real concern is San Luis in western Merced County, where west San Joaquin Valley farmers get water.

It is not a mountain reservoir. It does not have a big, natural stream, unlike the reservoirs I’ve mentioned. It is one of the larger off-stream reservoirs you will find anywhere in the United States.

So, water must be pumped into San Luis from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, 120 miles away. The delta pumping has been limited to protect the dwindling delta smelt. So it San Luis only at 69% of average right now.

The reservoir is 2 million acre-feet — about four times bigger than Millerton Lake, though it’s not all devoted to the Central Valley Project. The state stores water there, too.

Many experts tell me they don’t think it will fill.

There are bigger questions now, because pumping for San Luis usually continues well into the warm season to provide water. To provide enough water, the reservoir needs to get continuous pumping from the delta in spring.

What if the weather stays dry? What if the pumping restrictions continue at the delta? How much water will be available  in May and June when the thermometer starts to climb?

Should farmers fallow a lot of acreage? Should they drill new wells and keep pulling water from the ground?

Yosemite plans $15 million makeover at Mariposa Grove

Yosemite National Park has a $15 million plan to make Mariposa Grove and its 484 mature giant sequoias a healthier place for the big trees, moving asphalt and structures away from their extensive roots.

Read the draft environmental documents and comment to the National Park Service by May 7.

The plan, which will be funded by the Yosemite Conservancy, is to rip out the lower parking lot and gift shop to get them off the widespread, shallow root system of the giants.

Most parking will be moved two miles away to the South Entrance, where shuttle buses will give visitors a free lift to the trees.

The Park Service wants to kick off  the facelift in time to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the grove’s protection in a federal law signed by Abraham Lincoln. The anniversary will be in June 2014.

“It was landmark legislation,” said restoration ecologist Sue Beatty, who is working on the project.

The work here is reminiscent of the makeover in Giant Forest during the 1990s when Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks removed many buildings to protect the trees.

Most of the remaining 75 groves in the world are located in the southern Sierra at Sequoia-Kings or in the Sequoia National Monument. They are considered the world’s largest tree with a life span of more than 2,000 years.

The Mariposa Grove is the largest of Yosemite’s three giant sequoia groves.

Track California reservoirs, rivers and snowpack data

If you’re interested in tracking reservoir storage, river flows and the snow-water content in the Sierra, the state has a web site for you — California Data Exchange Center, known as CDEC.

I am particularly interested in the amount of water frozen in the snow. Water content gives you an idea of how much water can be expected next spring and summer when the snowpack melts.

About this time of year, I like to compare the snowpack at this point to the snowpack last year. You can do that at this page.

As of Nov. 21, the Sierra is about the same as it was last year.  It is less than average, but most of the season is still ahead.

River flows become more important later in the wet season, but any time is a good time to look up reservoir levels. Reservoirs are the bank account of water from previous seasons. They’re still looking pretty good, even though last year was a little dry.

Follow CDEC, and you’ll have an idea of what farmers, hydroelectric projects and many industries are watching this winter in California.