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Dan McCaslin: Welcome to the Anthropocene, Part III — The Loss of Chaparral

Our local trails and more are at stake with global climate change, out-of-control urbanization and too-extensive mandatory brush clearance

A 2012 photo shows the once-beautiful second campsite at Mission Pine Basin Camp in the San Rafael Wilderness five years after the 2007 Zaca Fire. Click to view larger
A 2012 photo shows the once-beautiful second campsite at Mission Pine Basin Camp in the San Rafael Wilderness five years after the 2007 Zaca Fire. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

In these columns I point toward exciting trails where readers can relish outdoor exercise and also go past the urban hurly-burly that afflicts even our beloved Santa Barbara town.

Living in the same small Westside house since 1986, Highway 101 howls far louder than it did 31 years ago, population density has risen and the downtown funk zone seems horribly congested these days.

Some of these themes like urbanization, pollution and commercialization — how about those enormous cruise ships anchored offshore? — inevitably accompany a region with warm weather, lovely beaches and enchanting mountains.

My columns aim for folks who live/work in the greater Santa Barbara metropolitan area, but absolutely must get outside. They not only know they need at least 17,000 “steps” per day, but they really want to find a little solitude, too.

Yes, yes, I know, the beach and surfing present great options, but you’re still surrounded by the urban blight we once called “progress,” and the attendant coolers, beach towels and cars close in along with hordes of the like-minded. Try Hendry’s Beach any of these beautiful afternoons.

Like the Chumash before us (and still), most humans here choose this area for the climate and the outstanding combination of sea/plain/mountains (low foothills).

I lived in Greece for most of 1976 and visited scores of well-favored areas (Andritsena, anyone?), but our topography and weather equal anything there. Since we also live in the early Anthropocene geological Era, and global climate change figures into the geologists’ assessments that the preceding Holocene Era has ended, our physical activities and pursuits outdoors have to be affected.

Some of the dense scientific discussion about when the Anthropocene Age (or Era) really began misses the point that there is no specific dividing line. These are Earth processes on their own cycles, and the truly deciding debate is about how much they have accelerated, and the causes, not whether they are happening.

Fire damage is evident among the dead trees near Mission Pine Basin Camp.
Fire damage is evident among the dead trees near Mission Pine Basin Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Even the new faux-Environmental Protection Agency’s Scott Pruitt essentially admits this; the climate is certainly heating up.

At the end of August in 2016, the International Geological Congress meeting in Cape Town specifically recommended replacing their term Holocene Epoch with Anthropocene Epoch.

The Holocene featured about 12,000 years of relatively stable climate on Earth. The Anthropocene — anthro-caused, i.e. human-caused changes — appears to feature faster and more dramatic changes. Two of these changes negatively affect our local trails and backcountry, and specifically have damaged the chaparral vegetation natural to our clime.

Most of our local trails start in deep canyon corridors like Rattlesnake Canyon or Jesusita Trail — and finally wend their way higher and out into the open amid the wonderful hard chaparral as we aim for the crest at the Camino Cielo. The admitted global climate change has heavily affected the chaparral — the dominant native plant type in our entire area (seven specific plants).

As Richard Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute contends, the new and increasing frequency of California wildfires and their increasing duration alters our ideas about chaparral survival in the Anthropocene.

Without chaparral cover, the erosion and ensuing mudslides wipe out trails and make some of our hiking and backpacking trails impossible.

It is almost impossible to get to the former (completely burned out) Nineteen Oaks Camp from Upper Oso since recent fires burned everything. Then this winter’s deluge literally wiped out the portion of the Santa Cruz Trail (from Camuesa Road) leading there. Restoration is ongoing as I write.

Most of Los Padres National Forest is actually chaparral — it should be called Los Padres National Chaparral Recreation Area. A high percentage of our treasured San Rafael Wilderness is chaparral (hard and soft), although I too often celebrate the green delights of the riparian corridors or the “islets” of conifers at the higher elevations (e.g. Reyes Peak).

The California chaparral and woodlands eco-region is in the “Mediterranean woodland/scrub biome,” one of only five Mediterranean chaparral biomes on Earth. (The other: the Med of course, the west coast of South America, the Cape Town area of South Africa, and the western tip of Australia (Adelaide)).

The California Chaparral Institute people think that out-of-control urbanization — consider all the housing down in Santa Clarita! — eats up huge chaparral growth areas. Controversially, they contend that removing more chaparral, via clearance or controlled burns, promotes the intense growth of invasive non-native plants, which can become even more of a fire hazard.

I agree with the institute that combining too-extensive mandatory brush clearance with the massive wildfires we’ve come to expect in this Anthropocene could eliminate most California chaparral within a century.

Another example shown in the lead photograph is 5,400-foot Mission Pine Basin Camp in the San Rafael Wilderness, a 21-mile backpacking trek from Upper Oso. This 2012 photo shows the once-beautiful second campsite — not the one under the big tree in the adjacent meadow — five years after the intense 2007 Zaca Fire swept through, hammering almost all the conifers and all of the chaparral. Compare a pre-2007 photograph of Mission Pine Basin from the Santa Barbara Outdoors website.

When the president pulls the United States out of the Paris accord, when CNN’s Jim Acosta tells Scott Pruitt on national TV that “your head is in the sand” about climate change, when I see the really terrible fire damage between Mission Pine Springs and Mission Pine Basin Camps, it feels like loss of local hiking trails is a very small problem compared to loss of all the chaparral.

I’ve been teaching Western Civilization classes for almost 40 years, and sometimes it feels like the expansion of the homo sapiens species could be characterized as an assault on the Mother, a kind of global vandalism plundering Her body without care for regeneration or aesthetics.

President Emmanuel Macron of France hurled a speech at America after our leader’s disgraceful departure from the Paris accord, and a key line was, “Make the planet great again.” How can the emerging nationalism, with focus on each individual country, foster the growth of a politics for the Anthropocene to combat the damage we’re doing to the only spaceship we’ve got?

Rush out to our local trails with your children now — and wonder if their grandkids will have any trails in 2117.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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