Sometimes, to save the land, you have to kill a tree
Saws swarm the hillside, buzzing hungry chainsaws. Sunlight filters through the branches of a piñon pine. Near its base, a slender juniper meets its demise as the long arm of the Stihl first removes its branches and then separates it from its roots.
“Falling!” shouts the sawyer.
The juniper tumbles in the direction of a ranch-style home built on the hillside. The dwelling is one of a smattering of buildings in this remote outpost in the Pine Nut Range, outside Gardnerville.
I eye the small stump, half waiting for the Lorax to pop out and raise some hell. Dr. Seuss’ mossy forest denizen doesn’t appear, though workers drag branches to a wood chipper where bits of tree fly into a pile on the ground.
Where trees and dwellings meet—this is the wildland urban interface. The air’s thick with the aroma of fresh-cut pine and tinged, like a Christmas tree lot, with the scent of gasoline.
Chain saws and wood chippers may not be the first things that come to mind when considering environmental preservation. Yet the work being done here in the Sierra foothills represents efforts of the Great Basin Institute, a non-profit group that also employs eco-conscious young people to obfuscate roads in wilderness areas, replant native vegetation and maintain hiking trails.
The group hacking junipers and piñon pines on this sunny fall day is the Basin and Range Forestry (BRF) team, one of several organizations under the GBI umbrella. Glenn Miller, a member of GBI’s board of directors and director of the Environmental Health and Sciences department at University of Nevada, Reno explains the paradox of environmentalists wielding tools of botanical destruction—sometimes to protect the land, you have to kill a tree.
“The crew, as a whole, is quite green,” Miller explains, using the color to signify environmental commitment. “They’re interested in environmental protection and in learning to do that right. Sometimes that’s with chain saws.”
The make-up of the BRF crew may surprise. As Liz Toomey, 24, drags pine branches down the hill, she explains that she’s from Massachusetts and has a bachelor’s degree in history. She lives in the North Lake Tahoe area and likes working outdoors. She takes environmental studies courses at UNR and hopes to pursue a master’s degree.
“I wanted to travel, and I’d never been out of the East,” she says. “I wanted to check out the Wild West.”
Joel Ingram, 25, of Davenport, Iowa, holds a degree in outdoor education.
“I liked being outside and giving back to the land a little,” Ingram says. Last year, he taught young people about survival skills and environmental issues at a camp in California.
Kevin Allen, 24, came to Nevada from Pennsylvania, where he studied computer-aided drafting.
“I decided I needed to come out West and do work,” Allen says.
And the crew works. Long days in the forest, rain or shine. No desks. No computers. No term papers to write.
The crew’s recent work is being done on contract with the Nevada Fire Safe Council, for which the BRF provides forestry consulting, fuels management and community education. They’ve done similar work in the Virginia Highlands and Foothills—and all around Lake Tahoe.
Wearing goggles and hardhats, armed with the tools of the firefighting trade, crew members will spend two or three days working at the City of Refuge, an out-of-the-way shelter for unmarried pregnant women. The crew gets a late start, not wanting their noisy saws to interrupt the women’s morning religious services.
Then they begin limbing and falling trees marked with pink ribbons. They remove brush growing under the drip line of larger trees. In a fire, this dry brush would serve as kindling, a ladder for the flames to engulf the entire tree.
To demonstrate, crew supervisor Chris Fromm picks up a wicked-looking firefighting tool, a rake and hoe combo that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a slasher flick.
“This here’s a McLeod,” he says with a faux Scottish lilt. He raises the tool over the base of a dry, gray sage. “And this"—whack!—"is what it’s for"—whack!—"getting stuff"—whack!—"out from under"—whack!—"the canopy.”
GBI founder Jerry Keir’s office is a jungle of foliage and books, with house plants in the windows, on, behind and over his desk and near crowded bookshelves. New on Keir’s desk is a solid-looking trophy, the 2005 Governor’s Points of Light Award, given to the Great Basin Institute in October for excellence as a nonprofit service organization.
“It’s the heaviest award I’ve ever received,” Keir says, smiling.
Keir, 39, didn’t come to Nevada, nine years ago, to start the organizational octopus that would be the GBI. He came here as an English student in UNR’s Literature and Environment program. Keir studied ecocriticism, reading and writing about texts from an environmental perspective. The program values real-life experience and getting outdoors.
Its motto: “We’d rather be hiking.”
Program members share a love of literature and concern for the havoc that humankind wreaks on the planet. Yet gnawing on academic theory in the classroom often seemed, to Keir, “limited in its application.” To put ideas into practice, he planned an interdisciplinary experiment—taking undergraduate students studying the humanities (English, history, philosophy) into the field where science students were conducting research. He wanted to take them hiking.
He found a willing cohort in Sanjay Pyare, a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in ecology, evolution and conservation biology.
Keir was interested in Pyare’s biological research. Pyare was interested in literature and in sharing scientific ideas with a broader audience.
The pair enlisted 32 students for their first experiment, which Keir calls “an unqualified success.” Students who’d rarely left the classroom tromped around the Little Valley field station in Washoe Valley. They worked on electro-shocking trout to protect endangered species, catching bats and observing how chipmunks cache seeds.
In tandem, students read literary works, like Henry David Thoreau’s Faith in a Seed, and Gary Nabhan’s The Forgotten Pollinators.
The class addressed what Keir sees as a gaping chasm in the environmental education of many students, especially in the humanities.
“Students have a lot of vitality, but it’s displaced,” Keir says. Students in the classroom can end up “dangerously removed from any real-world crisis.”
He favors richer interdisciplinary experiences.
“That’s the heart of what we’re trying to get at here,” he says. “One of the things we realized is the importance of having students make a meaningful contribution to research, to be involved in collecting a data set that would inform policy making. A lot of environmental literature is about that—making a contribution and the ethics of involvement.”
Following the advice of then English department chair Stephen Tchudi, Keir created the Great Basin Institute to sponsor that first class.
Before long, GBI was offering more interdisciplinary courses. Students could visit the Granite Range and earn college credits for “Wild Horse Ecology and Conservation” or learn about topographic map interpretation in “Field Methods in Mountain Geography.” Keir received a grant to take middle- and high-school students down the Truckee River, replanting riparian areas washed away in the 1997 flood.
To help college grads transition into the work world, Keir conceived the Nevada Conservation Corps. He obtained seed money through AmeriCorps. Now, young people come from around the nation to spend a year working with a conservation crew throughout Nevada and several other Western states.
“A lot of people get out of AmeriCorps and have no idea what to do with themselves,” says Keir. One option after NCC is for some participants to move up to work with the Basin and Range Forestry.
“It’s a rung on the experiential ladder to help place NCC graduates in professional positions,” Keir says.
Don Niebyl, 24, smells like a pine tree. No surprise there. Niebyl, who has a degree in forestry, is the BRF’s lead forester. I meet Niebyl, a native of Maryland, at the 7-Eleven outside Gardnerville. We climb into Great Basin Institute’s grizzled Suburban, complete with cracked clock face and scented deliciously sappy.
We tumble down Pine Nut Road, turning onto a series of bumpy back roads into the hills.
Niebyl’s every inch a woodsman, in ball cap, thick brown work pants and a BRF T-shirt, all stained with sap. He’s a long way from Harvard, where he conducted research on invasive species like the Hemlock woolly adelgid’s migration across Central Massachusetts.
Chopping trees can require a mental adjustment for some students trained in ecology.
“A lot of people, when they initially join, have moral issues with cutting down trees,” Niebyl says. “Most of these people think that cutting trees must be bad.”
It doesn’t take long, though, for the eco-sensitive sawyers to view their labor as conservation.
“A lot of people would be less worried about forestry if they understood this,” Niebyl says.
In this area, the Waterfall Fire is still fresh in residents’ minds. Damage tally: 9,000 acres burned and 31 homes, three businesses and 51 vehicles lost. Cost: $5 million.
“A lot of people like the seclusion of living out here,” Niebyl says. “They want to get out of urban areas and feel at peace, alone. But that causes problems. This is where the fires are.”
BRF crew members meet with homeowners in the wildland-urban interface and talk to them about thinning fire hazards within 100 feet of buildings.
“Sometimes we have to work to convince them,” Niebyl says. “They say, ‘I like my trees, these bushes.’ They’ve made this investment in developing their property, but they don’t think about protecting the investment in terms of fire.”
Some say they prefer land to remain in its “natural” state.
“This is actually unnatural,” Niebyl says, pointing out low branches and dry brush that would, without human intervention, be burned off by naturally occurring wildfires. Since humans prevent fires in inhabited areas, the “natural” course is interrupted.
“We have to go through and be Mother Nature,” Niebyl says.
The English grad student rowed the head of his PhD committee through a mangrove swamp not far from the coast of Mexico. Their discussion ranged from talking about literature to discussing the crocodile population under study. The dinghy reached an impasse. Lush foliage had grown over the corridor.
Student Jerry Keir didn’t hesitate.
“At that moment he leaped out of the dinghy into the crocodile-infested swamp, whipped out a machete and started whacking away,” says Scott Slovic, professor in UNR’s Literature and Environment program.
That exemplifies Keir’s work, Slovic says. It’s a model for academics who want to be professionally engaged in activities outside the university.
“These are people out doing things in the world,” Slovic says. “Jerry was rowing his PhD adviser through the swamp and teaching me about the place—he’s an ecocritic who knows something about being in nature.”
Slovic met Keir at Southwest Texas State University, where he mentored Keir in a master’s degree program. Slovic, who came to UNR to help found the Literature and Environment program, recruited Keir to study here in 1996. Nine years later, Keir is still working on his doctoral degree.
“None of the faculty advisers have the heart to shut him down,” Slovic says, joking about Keir becoming the “first-ever tenured PhD candidate.”
Keir is loathe to put activism on hold to finish his dissertation. Like other environmental groups, he doesn’t know how long funding will be available. These days, the GBI gets about $1 million of its $3.2 million budget in funds from public land sales as a result of the Southern Nevada Public Lands Act of 1998. The law designates funds from public land sales in Clark County to be used to fund environmental projects like those of the Great Basin Institute.
“It’s a brilliant piece of legislation,” Keir says. “Instead of those funds going back to the general treasury, that money stays here for conservation, for environmental improvement programs.”
These days, though, that money is being eyed by federal officials as a potential source of income.
“A lot of people don’t understand how much work is getting accomplished with this funding,” Keir says. “So far we’re OK, but a lot of people are getting concerned.”
And there’s so much work to do. In the past few years, the GBI’s work expanded to international proportions when Keir began working with the Earthwatch organization. Now GBI sends volunteers to the tropical deciduous forests of Costa Alegre in Mexico on week-long environmental mission trips. Workers sample tree density and collect plants. They monitor diverse bird species and crocodile populations. They help out and, more importantly, learn new ways of thinking about environments.
Slovic, who spent a week in Costa Alegre, called the experience “life-altering.”
Most of Slovic’s work involves reading, writing and analyzing texts, reviewing books and hopping around the globe to talk about the relatively new field of ecocriticism at international conferences.
He occasionally tracks bird populations on the central Pacific coast of Mexico.
“We would go out for hours and sit in small boats in mangrove swamps, counting birds,” Slovic says. “I had never really done bird watching in any serious way. It takes days to get into the rhythm. …. You start to learn the vocabulary of the avian landscape. For me it was a revelation.”
When he returned to Reno, the place felt altered.
“The first thing I did was come home, sit in my backyard and watch birds,” he says. “I saw how we can break out of usual ways of living and learn to pay attention to the environment we find ourselves in.”
It’s critical, more than ever, for the public to encounter ideas generated by scientific research. That’s why Sanjay Pyare, who co-taught the first GBI class with Keir, plans to create a similar institute in his new home in Alaska.
“I’m into doing outreach,” Pyare, assistant professor of GIS and Landscape Ecology at the University of Alaska Southeast, says. “Everything I do is applied [research]. And I like to distill the science into a format that is convenient for writers, school teachers and the general public.”
Interdisciplinary work can serve as communications tool. And never has communicating science to a broad swath of citizens been more important.
“There’s a lot of politically subversive stuff going on right now,” Pyare says. “Disputing the science behind climate change, the Endangered Species Act, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
Scientists often find it hard to disseminate research results widely. Chances to teach people to think objectively and critically about consequential issues can be lost.
“That’s how many people in the general public latch on to what George W. Bush says about climate change,” Pyare says. “It’s important to take whatever we find and get it out there to be digested by the general public. Then when they’re confronted [with misinformation], they don’t take it at face value. They don’t have an easy means to say, ‘This isn’t true.'”
Interviewed by phone just before Thanksgiving, Pyare was preparing to spend a week on a remote part of the Alaskan coast, where he planned to fish and to continue his studies of the western toad, an amphibian whose population may be declining. Pyare also works on conservation and management plans for the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest temperate rainforest system. The area is challenged by multiple demands of the logging, fishing and tourism industries.
Pyare’s research involves applied science, which he sees as key to solving real-life problems.
“I wanted to do work that had some consequence,” he says. “I saw a lot of money going to research and didn’t see value in terms of the average person. I wanted to make a difference and do good science at the same time.”
For Niebyl, Great Basin Institute is a good fit. He couldn’t see himself working at another university for extended periods of time.
After graduating, he decided to go West. He enrolled in the Nevada Conservation Corps.
“I’d spent four years writing, studying for tests—it’s mind-numbing,” he says. “I wanted to get outdoors.”
Working for the NCC was like a year-long camping trip. With his crew, Niebyl traveled to Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, Arches, Zion, Canyonlands and Lake Mead. On the side, he completed two internships with the Nevada Forest Service.
“I can’t think of any better way to move out here and experience the Western fantasy,” Niebyl says.
The work wasn’t all fun and sunshine. Niebyl recalls the despair of one foul-weathered day in the Mohave. His crew was building fences to keep off-road vehicles off the cryptobiotic crust, the lichens and moss that stall soil erosion.
Niebyl was wet, chilled to the bone and miserable.
“It’s raining, cold, windy, and I’m thinking, ‘I have a college degree. What am I doing out here?’ Then I remembered. It’s an experience like nothing else.”
After a year with NCC, Niebyl moved up to Basin and Range Forestry, a group Keir named with a nod to writer John McPhee’s book Basin and Range.
The group is certified to bid on contracts like those of the Fire Safe Council. As a non-profit, the BRF doesn’t do commercial logging.
“We take out the ugliest trees, the least healthy if we have a choice,” Niebyl says. “The wood doesn’t go to lumber mill, but to property owners. We turn it into firewood or mulch for them.”
Three sawyers gather to fell the largest tree of the afternoon, a pinyon with a trunk slightly thicker than my thigh—yet too tall and gangly to decorate with lights and cram in the living room.
“This is child’s play,” Niebyl says, waving a pesky insect away from his face. “We’re all certified to cut really big trees.”