Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Future trails and trends bringing together archaeology, education and ecotourism

It has always been a challenge to convince people that they—and their children —will benefit from integrated, long-term planning and economically sustainable development rather than short-term exploitation. Let's visit, for example, the Mirador Basin in Mexico's Campeche state and northern Guatemala, also referred to as the “cradle of Maya civilization” [1]. This area has seen the coming and going of civilizations including those existing in time spans named the Classic period (about 250-900 AD) and the Pre-Classic period (about 2000 BC to 250 AD). Their stages of decline are often associated, hinted at by archaeological findings, with overexploitation and environmental destruction.

Again, the Mirador Basin faces an uncertain future, considering reports on poaching, unsustainable logging and looting of cultural heritage sites; in fact, those mystical and interesting sites that may teach us something about success, failure and balance of a great civilization in a rich, diverse and natural environment. But there is also hope. A small part of the basin in Guatamala has become the Mirador-Río Azul National Park [2], which itself is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve created in 1990 to help preserve the largest tropical rain forest in Central America [3].

Ideas and financial support for preserving the Mirador wilderness area and its Mayan ruins are trickling in from different individuals and parties such as film-producer Mel Gibson, archaeologist Richard Hansen, the Palo Alto-based Global Heritage Fund, Guatemalan authorities and, last not least, adventurers and ecotourists. In an interview, Richard Hansen talks about the technical advice he provided for the making of the film Apocalypto, putting on screen a fictional story by Mel Gibson illuminating Mayan warfare and the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization [4]. Hansen expects Gibson to stay involved in the sustainable development of the Mirador Basin, helping to create a model for reducing drug dealing and illegal immigration by building a locally attractive infrastructure. 

Richard Hansen and conservationists from Guatemala support sustainable use of the El Mirador forest, for example, harvesting of renewable plant products: allpsice, xate, bayal, chicle [1]. Projects are bringing literacy classes, computers and computer training to local schools. Hansen suggests, that tourism should be approached by keeping the wilderness roadless and having guests coming to the local communities, staying in microhotels and hiring local guides, mules or bikes to get around. Visitors from nearby and far away are envisioned to walk, mule-ride and bike recreational paths, free of engine noise, and listening to the silently reflecting sounds of the Mayas and the noisier ones of the cicadas, owls, woodpeckers, toucans and monkeys.

Keywords: Mesoamerican civilization, pre-Columbian America, history, society, sustainability, traveling

References and further reading
[1] Chip Brown: Lost City of the Maya. Smithsonian May 2011, 42 (2), pp.36-49 [www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/El-Mirador-the-Lost-City-of-the-Maya.html].
[2] Mirador-Río Azul National Park [www.moon.com/destinations/guatemala/peten/the-maya-biosphere-reserve/mirador-rio-azul-national-park].
[3] The Maya Biosphere Reserve [www.cotf.edu/earthinfo/camerica/maya/MBtopic4.html].
[4] Conservation: Mel Gibson's Maya (Richard Hansen talks about being the technical advisor on Apocalypto) [www.archaeology.org/0701/etc/conversation.html].

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Yellow fritillaries at the grassland slopes of Mount Peavine near Reno, Nevada

These yellow fritillaries (Fritillaria pudica) were found in early April just after the snow-melt at the northeast-facing slopes of Mount Peavine north of Reno. This plant of the lily family (Liliaceae) is often named after its hanging, bell-shaped flower: yellow bell (also written as one word: yellowbell) or gold bell. The plants spotted in the Peavine area were small, with a height less than 4" (10 cm).  But the yellow-golden flowers announce their presence to anybody hiking the still-wet, soon-to-be-dry slopes.

References and more fritillaries
[1] Richard Spellenberg: North American Wildflowers - Western Region. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2001; page 588.
[2] USDA Plants Profile: Fritillaria pudica (Pursh) Spreng. [http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=FRPU2].
[3]  CalFlora: Taxon Report 3641 [http://www.calflora.org/cgi-bin/species_query.cgi?where-calrecnum=3641].
[4] Thayne Tuason: Fritillaria pudica, yellow bell, yellow fritillary [http://www.cwnp.org/photopgs/fdoc/frpudica.html].

Monday, April 18, 2011

Buttercup bloom along the Lower Thomas Creek Trail

Large displays of yellow buttercup assemblies can be found this April between the sagebrushes on both sides of the Lower Thomas Creek Trail south of Reno. This is where the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada change from forest into desert habitat and where the switch from a snow-covered into a sun-exposed sagebrush landscape happens without leaving much time for an ambient and mild spring environment.

The picture shoes a buttercup flower with five shiny yellow petals and many stamens and pistils. Most of the green leaves are three-lobed. The buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) includes various species with these features such as the desert buttercup (Ranunculus cymbalaria) and the sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus). Faced with a genus of over 600 species, taxonomic classification is best left to the expert, a ranunculacologist I assume.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hiking to the top of Sugarloaf Peak, a granite peak between Reno/Sparks and Pyramid Lake

Sugarloaf Peak is an easily accessible granite peak north of Spanish Springs in Nevada. The peak is composed of Cretaceous granite capped by Miocene basalt [1]. You can see the volcanic black rock from a distance. Once on top, you will overlook Spanish Springs Valley and spot, further south, Spanish Springs Canyon and the Pah Rah area. Sugarloaf Peak is treeless and there is no shade along the trail. No challenges otherwise; early spring is a good time to get up there.

A new federal grant will be provided for trail maintenance, educational and direction signs and a trailhead kiosk [2]. Until trail enhancement work will start this summer, you are on your own.

Getting there
Going north on Pyramid Highway, turn right on Horizonview Avenue (past Calle de la Plata) and turn right again into a short cul-de-sac. From the proposed trailhead at the end of the cul-de-sac, hike or bike east for about 1.5 miles: either go east right away until you reach the fenced pit, then continue on the dirt road along the fence until you reach a red gate; or start going south and then straight east to the red gate. No bikes beyond the gate. Follow the dirt road at the westside base of the peak, with the mining pit to your left. Just before you get to the county water tank turn right and climb to the top.  

Reference and further reading
[1] J. V. Tingley, K. A. Pizarro, C. Ross, B. W. Putkey and L. J. Garside: Geologic and Natural History Tours in the Reno Area. Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, University of Nevada, Reno, 2005; page 166.
[2] Susan Voyles: Grant to open up trail to Sugorloaf. Reno-Gazette-Journal Jan. 2, 2011, pages 1D and 4D.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The magic of bike trails

A new bike trail brings new life to a neighborhood. A good example is the asphalt bike trail built and completed on the path of an old railroad track in 1989 to and from Lanesboro, Minnesota. This is a very small town of just over 700 people—a Midwest town, which had more than twice as many people during its heydays [1]. And today, thanks to the connecting bike trail, the population can swell to 5,000 weekenders enjoying this kind of place that now features several campgrounds, restaurants, theaters and an annual Rhubarb Festival.

Looking for a river canyon bike trail? What about the high-altitude Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail of Susanville in California [2]. This scenic trail winds through the rugged Susan River Canyon along the track of a Southern Pacific Railroad line that was abandoned in 1978. This trail is also frequented by hikers, horseback riders, and—as I was told by visitors and locals—crossed by mountain lions.

Yet another bike path, following an old railroad line, is the Bremen-Tarmstedt Kleinbahn, once with trains on narrow-track-gauge rails connecting the city of Bremen with the small town of Tarmstedt in Northern Germany [3]. Locally known as “Jan Reiners,” after Johann Reiners (1825-1908), who initiated its construction for the commercial development of the wetlands and peat-bog locations east of Bremen. The magic here: no canyon walls, no mountain lions, but maybe rhubarb and certainly off-track coffee and beer gardens.  

This is just a random sample of  track-to-trail bike paths. There is a resourceful website dedicated to rails-to-trails conservation [4]. The magic continues to roll: new trails are going to connect people, their neighborhoods and places of historical as well as natural interest. And some railroad transportation hopefully stays in service to take you home on a flat-tire or thunderstorm-surprise day.

[1] Jan Meyer: Lanesboro, MN. Smithsonian April 2011, 42 (1) page 9 [http://www.smithsonianmag.com/departments/my-kind-of-town/your-kind-of-town/Lanesboro-MN.html].
[2] Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trails [http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/res/Education_in_BLM/Learning_Landscapes/For_Travelers/go/adventures/bizz_johnson_trail.print.html].
[3] “Jan Reiners” – auf schmaler Spur von Bremen nach Tarmstedt  (“Jan Reiners” – on a narrow rail gauge from Bremen to Tarmstedt) [http://www.niederelbebahn.de/geschichte/seiten/jan-reiners-auf-schmaler-spur-von-bremen-nach-tarmstedt/]
[4] Rails-to-trails conservancy [http://www.railstotrails.org/news/recurringfeatures/trailmonth/archives/0811.html].

Friday, April 1, 2011

Yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus)

The yellow skunk cabbage is an American plant, as its scientific name Lysichiton americanus reveals [1-3]. The plant has yellow flowers and green, tobacco-like leaves with a skunky smell growing in aquatic and semi-aquatic habitat. Luckily I missed that smell, while taking pictures of the shown leaves in the “Arthur L. Menzies Garden of California Native Plants” section in the San Francisco Botanical Garden.

Yellow skunk cabbage, also known as American skunk-cabbage and western skunk-cabbage, belongs to the Arum family (Araceae) in the order Arales. Its natural area of distribution includes the coastal ranges of Northwest America between Alaska and California and certain areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. However, the skunk cabbage is also an invasive species in many parts of Europe, where it first was introduced for cultivation in Great Britain in 1901 and later (around 1975) as an ornamental plant in Sweden [3]. The cabbage spread to the wild. It has now been found at various sites in other countries including Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. Vegetation studies in invaded habitat have shown that Lysichiton americanus is out-competing smaller plants (including some endangered mosses and orchid species) by shadowing them with its large leaves. And what about out-smelling them with its said skunk odor?

References and further reading
[1] Peter Alden and Fred Heath:
Field Guide to California. Chanticleer Press, Inc and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, Seventh Printing 2007; page 138.
[2] USDA Plants Profile: Lysichiton americanus Hulté & H. St. John, American skunkcabbage [plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=LYAM3].
[3] Frank Klingenstein and Beate Alberternst: NOBANIS-Invsive Alien Species Fact Sheet: Lysichiton americanus [www.nobanis.org/files/factsheets/Lysichiton americanus.pdf].