The West from 30,000 feet


Recently I had the opportunity to fly from Salt Lake City to Arcata on the coast of Northern California during the daytime. I've noticed that most airline passengers don't look out the windows very often. But when I have a clear day I delight in the views. One of my favorite games is to try picking out geographic landmarks. Big volcanoes are easy as are large valleys. Rivers, however, can be very challenging.

The day of this flight was very clear. The first thing I noticed was how much the Great Salt lake has shrunk! I had read about this but seeing it from the air really brought home the change. It is hard to imagine that there once were large resorts on the Lake. Now it appears all but abandoned. On this Sunday I could see only one boat far to the north.

Western Utah from the air is not impressive - unless you get off on salt flats. But it is interesting to think about the fact that this area was once a vast inland sea. Today there is very little evidence of water anywhere in this landscape.

I could tell when I got to Nevada because the alternation of basin and range is unmistakable and the vegetation is so sparse one can also see the streams coming off the ranges. Most streams literally disappear into the sandy soil soon after reaching a basin.

Next we passed nearly over one of those large Nevada strip mines. They are fascinating from the air with their geometric curves and bright green spoil ponds. later at home I found an entire website devoted to pictures of mostly-Nevada mines.

There are also green circles in Nevada looking out of place in the landscape. These are agricultural fields with center pivot well and sprinkler systems. The contrast with the surrounding landscape where browns and tans dominate is stark. I wonder if these wells tap the water which Las Vegas plans to pipe South to feed its resort lakes and waterfalls.

I could tell we were near California when the long north-south ridge of the Warner Mountains appeared, with the imaginatively named Alkali Lakes just to the east. Upper Alkali Lake, Middle Alkali Lake and Lower Alkali Lake do not appear inviting and their names do nothing to alter that perception. I've seen them before from the South Warner Wilderness but was never motivated to get any closer.

Once over the Warners we were above the green forests of the Modoc Plateau with its volcanic lakes and springs, and with Mount Shasta towering to the North. There was fresh snow on Shasta. Like forests up and down both sides of the Cascades, the Modoc forests are a patchwork of clear-cuts. But these clear-cuts all seem to have a small patch of forest within them - usually near the center. This is the far southeastern range of the Northern Spotted Owl and these may be nest groves that loggers were forced to leave uncut. There is a checkerboard of public and privately owned land here and the clear-cuts with retained nest groves could be on either ownership. Or these may be the nest groves of Goshawks which in California get 1/4 to 1/2 acres of protection on public and private lands. As a forest activist I had encountered such nest grove retention before. Usually the Goshawk or owl pair abandons the nest site within a year or two once the surrounding forest is cut. On private land the timber companies then get to go back and cut the nest grove. Over time this half-baked conservation scheme will likely lead to extirpation of the species from the area.

Soon we were over Shasta Reservoir, which I have never seen as empty as it was on this day.  Agricultural interests and the governor want to raise Shasta Dam and flood more of the Upper Sacramento, Pitt and McCloud Rivers. Somewhere down there are lands occupied by Wintun Indians who are resisting the flooding because it will submerge more of their sacred sites as well as the land where they live.  Seeing the reservoir so depleted made me wonder if there would be enough inflow to ever fill it if the dam were raised.

Finally the white granite expanse of the Trinity Alps was in view. The Alps are to the north and there was no snow visible. Small glaciers on the north side of these peaks are receding and will likely soon be only a memory. The Trinity Alps are part of the Klamath Mountains which extend north into Oregon and almost to the coast. It is a rugged province with steep slopes, deep canyons and lots of forest. There have been large fires in these mountains this year and the manner in which the Forest Service fought those fires has been controversial. Many residents felt that the Forest Service lit too many backfires and burnouts, unnecessarily exposing residents to health-choking smoke. I try to pick out the fire lines and Forest Service burn outs. Generally they burn hotter than the natural fires which are a mosaic of green and rust with patches of bright yellow where the big leaf maples have turned fall bright.     

Soon the coast was in sight, covered with a blanket of fog as is usual when the inland mountains are warm.  The pilot had already warned us that we might have to divert to Medford, Oregon if we couldn't get under the fog. But today the fog is high and we slipped through to land along the cool Pacific Coast of Humboldt County.

It was a great two-hour flight; a chance to study diverse landscapes and the hand of humankind upon these western lands.