Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Land of Plenty


from the October 2008 issue of Verdugo Monthly

A personal vegetable garden is a delicious alternative to the typical suburban lawn
By Ilsa Setziol

About five years ago, I began to suspect my food qualified for more frequent flyer miles than I did. As an environmental reporter, I was already spending a lot of time contemplating the consequences of shipping, trucking and flying goods long distances: communities awash in diesel soot, and vast amounts of carbon dioxide heating up the planet.

So I started looking for food grown locally, paying attention to what was in season. But it was still a gamble: would any of the pricey peaches ripen, or would they all rot before getting tasty?
Then my husband decided to plant tomatoes at our San Gabriel home. They were delicious. We had pizza with sweet cherry and pear tomatoes, fresh salsa and endless pasta sauce. After years of regarding plants as something to whack with hedge trimmers, suddenly my husband was interested in growing them. He wanted corn, peppers, potatoes…watermelon. But all I could see was oceans of water spewing out the hose.

Was it possible to grow fruits and vegetables and still keep my conscience green? Does growing your food at home make sense in a state where our water often travels farther than our food? A good person to query was Peter Gleick. He studies water and climate at The Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research group. He says “It’s true there’s an expense to our pocketbooks and environment of moving water great distances in California, basically from the Sierra Nevada to the coast and southern California, but I think in the end, the idea of individuals using some of the water…to grow food on personal gardens is a pretty good idea. And what makes it a better idea is if we can remove lawn, and use the water that we’re now using to grow lawn, to grow some our food in our personal gardens.”

Diverting water from the Sierra can damage habitat for fish and other wildlife; it also contributes to global warming because it takes energy to pump water, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Indeed, state officials estimate nearly 20 percent of all power used in California goes to transporting and treating water.

I thought I’d better check with an environmentalist. “If you do it right it, [kitchen gardens do] make sense,” Andy Lipkis, President of TreePeople, told me. “You can work with heavily mulched soil, so you’re not losing a lot of water to transpiration. You can water with drip irrigation, so you cut down on as much as 60 to 80 percent of your water use, because you’re putting drippers right where your roots are.”

I’ve already installed a drip system, but I’m interested in another of Lipkis’ suggestions, using graywater—recycling water that would otherwise zip down the drain of your sink, tub or washer. He says, basically, you can hook a hose up to your washer, and extend it to your yard, or have it fill buckets. If you go this route, you’ll want to get up to speed on local graywater ordinances and garden-friendly detergents. A good place to start is graywater guru Art Ludwig’s website: graywater.net

To get some additional tips on making a kitchen garden greener, I asked horticulturalist Lili Singer to visit my yard. Wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat, she bent over to watch a bee tunnel into a large yellow zucchini flower. “If you take out grass or azalea or some other water-needy thing, and put in a vegetable garden, you may be using the same amount of water, but you’re getting more out of it,” says Singer. Replacing your lawn with a variety of flowering plants will also boost the diversity of birds and bugs in your yard, she adds.

Next to a slender oak, Singer watches goldfinches glean seeds from bloomed-out bachelor buttons. A mourning dove moseys among the California poppies. As she surveys my garden, she says “I’ve noticed in your yard, you’re not a neat freak — in a good way. You haven’t ripped off every seed head, and what that does is allow lots of birds to come in and eat the seeds and the insects that invade the plants.”

Master gardener Marta Teegan, of Homegrown Los Angeles, says another good way to cut back on chemicals and water is a technique called companion planting. One example is grouping tomato, parsley and carrot plants together. “Tomatoes hate wet feet,” she explains, “carrots aerate the soil for them. And the parsley fends off a whole host of pests. Tomatoes shade the carrots and parsley, which can’t take too much sun.” Squash is also a good companion because the tiny spines on its stems and leaves keep bugs at bay.

Both Teegan and horticulturalist Lili Singer recommend feeding your plants with homemade compost. “The plants don’t know the difference between organic and synthetic fertilizer,” said Singer, “but the soil does.” And so does the planet, according to the environmental group Californians Against Waste. The group’s Scott Smithline explains that when you apply synthetic fertilizers, the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide escapes into the air. Nitrogen pollution is also more likely to flow off your yard and into waterways.

Composting your waste fights global warming in other significant ways. When food and yard waste rot in the landfill, they emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The same waste composted produces very little methane, because the scraps are exposed to oxygen. Home composting also cuts down on truck trips to the dump. Horticulturalist Lili Singer says gardeners who compost are meeting the environmental goal of sustainability. ”If you really do the whole thing from start to finish and start with your own seeds and with your own compost that you’ve made from your kitchen waste, and you’re not using fuels, burning up rubber on highway to get to market — if everything you’re doing starts and ends on your property — that is the ideal minimization of the carbon footprint.”

This year my husband and I grew three kinds of tomatoes, too much zucchini, some yellow squash, green beans, watermelon, mandarin oranges, limes, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary, and marjoram. Next year there will be more!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wildlife Vacation


If you're crazy about wildlife, this is a place for you. You'll get a close up look at some gorgeous critters, such as this red-footed booby.

If you want to be alone in wilderness, this is not the spot. You must be accompanied by a registered guide, and that usually means you'll be in a group on a boat.

The islands are a great place to learn about evolution and ecology. Many animals, like the giant tortoise and the marine iguana are endemic--meaning they evolved and only live here. Some islands have their own distinct subspecies of the animal.

I swooned over the marine iguana (pictured here). This cute little monster is the only iguana in the world (that we know of) that swims and feeds in the ocean. These guys can hold their breath under water for as long as an hour! They feed on seaweed, then bask on the rocks to warm up after a cold dive.

Another highlight for me was watching male blue- footed boobies try to attract a mate. They shift side to side, displaying their bright blue feet, and point their long beaks at the sky. A certain amount of bottom-thrusting, and wing-spreading goes on, too. If a female is inclined, she'll join the dance, syncing up with him.

A trip to the Galapagos can also give you a glimpse of the little Galapagos penguin. It's the third smallest species of penguin, and the only one that lives so far north. Watching these little guys dive into the ocean, I worried about their future--and the fate of many other species here--in a warming world. Many of the booby mothers I saw were either nesting on low-lying beaches, or panting as they shaded their eggs on hot, exposed bluffs.

No trip to the islands would be complete without a glimpse of a Giant Tortoise, although you'll probably see a captive, not a wild one. Researchers think as many as 100,000 of these animals were eaten by 17-19th Century sailors. Mammals introduced to the islands--goats, pigs, dogs, rats--have also taken a toll on the reptile, damaging nests, eating eggs, etc. These tortoises grow huge and are famously long-lived. Nobody knows for sure how old they get, but they can probably live more than a century. I enjoyed observing this hatchling at a breeding center.

There was much more. Send along your questions, and I'll do my best to get you a decent answer.

Recommended Reading: Galapagos: A Natural History, Michael H. Jackson.

P.S. If you're contemplating this trip, be sure to plan some time on the continent. We enjoyed a too-short stay at an ecolodge in the cloud forest near Mindo, on the western slope of the Andes.

This Land is Your Land

Hike, Explore Free in Forests this Weekend

To visit many popular areas in southern California's four national forests, you usually need to buy a permit, called an Adventure Pass ($5 a day, $30 a year). It’s controversial with some folks, because national forests are public lands.  They say Congress should allocate adequate funds; after all, millions of tax-payers live near southern California’s national forests. Opponents also complain that not enough of the revenue goes to forest improvement projects. Forest managers, of course, disagree, citing trail maintenance, restroom and picnic ground improvements, and other upgrades.

In any case, in honor of National Public Lands Day, the fee is waived this weekend.

For the rest of the year, you can buy passes at forest information and ranger stations, some outdoor stores, and online.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Taking it Easy in Pasadena

Arroyo Seco (near JPL)

This is the bottom stretch of the Switzer or Gabrielino National Recreation Trail. If you have little kids, I recommend you check out my earlier post on the Switzer Trail (Your Big Backyard).

This trail offers an overlook of the Arroyo near JPL, and if you get far enough, a nice stream-side walk. However, the first half mile is not all that appealing; a chain link fence separates you from the water. I recommend this trail for families with older kids, as you’re more likely get far enough in to enjoy the pretty part. (We hike with our 18-month-old in a Kelty Kids carrier, but we limit the time he spends strapped in it.) The first mile or so of this route is paved and dirt road, so you might try biking it.

On a recent visit here, I enjoyed watching humming birds feed on the blossoms from this giant agave (more than 10 feet tall). 

Arroyo Seco to Teddy’s Outpost/Gould Mesa Camp
Angeles National Forest

Park a the small lot overlooking the Arroyo and JPL, located where Windsor Avenue curves east to meet Ventura Street on the border of Pasadena and Altadena. After parking, look toward the mountains, notice the two roads. Cross the street, dodging the oncoming traffic (yikes!) to get to them. Take the road on the right (the one closed to cars). Follow it until it becomes a dirt road, then a trail. Follow signs for Teddy’s Outpost/Gould Mesa Camp, don’t turn off on the Brown Mountain Fire Road.

Note: Just short of Teddy’s Outpost, the trail is officially closed because of a collapsed bridge. Unless it’s the rainy season, you can easily cross the stream on a few rocks, avoiding the dangerous bridge. It’s another half mile from the Outpost to Gould Mesa Trail Camp, or 1.5 miles to Paul Little Picnic Area.

Recommended Reading: Introduction to the Plant Life of Southern California, by Philip Rundel and Robert Gustafson (UC Press)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Green Nursery

So you’re having a baby. Congratulations—and yikes! your environmental footprint has grown several sizes. Plus, you’re now worried about hazards that never even occurred to you before. As an environmental reporter, I knew a little too much for comfort when I started planning for our son. I also knew that you can’t avoid all possible dangers; but you can be informed and make good choices. Consumer advocates often invoke a concept called the precautionary principle: basically, if you don’t know how something might harm someone, err on the side of caution. Some of the decisions I made for my son were based on this idea, not necessarily proof that a product could harm him. Because children are more vulnerable to contaminants, I watched his exposure more carefully than I would my own. Finally, I made some choices based on what I thought was better for the environment, even if it wouldn’t directly harm my family.

Ask your home improvement store for “low VOC” or "no VOC" paint. If the salesperson gives you a blank stare, ask for the "least polluting" paint. Already painted? Don't sweat it. Just give the room plenty of time to air out before you put baby in it. The same goes for new furnishings. 

Easy tip: If something smells chemically, there's a good chance that things you don’t want to inhale or ingest are offgassing. Air out the item (or return it). That said, you can’t always sniff out a problem, so read on for more advice.

Old Paint

Researchers know a lot more about the dangers of lead than most of the chemicals discussed below. Lead is definitely dangerous. We live in a house built in 1926. We didn’t try to remove the old paint (you need an expert for that); we covered it. If you do this, you’ll need to check your rooms periodically for areas that chip and wear. Clean up any chips or dust, and consider covering the eroded area.  When your child is older and less likely to eat chips or put dusty hands in her mouth, you won’t have to worry so much.

Friends—nice friends—gave us a crib, a changing table, and a glider chair. It’s not a matching set, but remember the mantra: “reduce, reuse, recycle?” Reduce and reuse come before recycle. I made sure hand-me-downs weren’t too old, so they’d be up to current safety standards. It’s also a good idea to check that nursery items haven’t been recalled at Recalls.gov.
Let new furniture air out.  Try to keep your child from mouthing the furniture, it can contain formaldehyde. If you can afford it, you can buy hardwood cribs coated with low-VOC finishes. 

You can also look for untreated, natural carpeting. We have a conventional rug in our son's room. But when he was little and rolling around on it, we spread blankets on top of the rug. 

The biggest investment we made was a flame-retardant-free, natural rubber mattress. Babies spend a lot of time in their beds; conventional mattresses and upholstered furniture are drenched with flame-retarding chemicals (PBDEs) that are accumulating in the environment and human bodies. California has banned some of these, but questions remain about the chemical still in use. We purchased our mattress from ecobaby.com, and also bought organic cotton sheets.

I registered for some organic cotton baby clothes and blankets, but most of our son’s clothes are not organic. Organic crops are better for the earth, but I haven’t seen any evidence that conventional clothing harms kids. So, if you have limited funds, spend your bucks on a better mattress (see above).

To avoid flame retardants on pajamas, look for "long johns." We like the organic ones sold by Hanna Anderson, but our son also wore some conventional pajamas. 

Lotions, soaps, shampoo
To be safe, I use natural or organic brands, such as Jason, California Baby, Avalon Organic, or Burts Bees. They are starting to be widely available. Conventional products often contain preservatives and other chemicals added only to make the product look, feel or smell better. There’s growing evidence that some of them, especially phthalates, aren’t good for babies. The good news for concerned parents is the federal government recently banned the most worrisome phthalates in products for children under age 12. Manufacturers will also have to prove additional phthalates are safe before using them. The law takes effect January 1, 2009. 

My favorite rash cream? Hyland’s. It’s the only one I’ve found that seems to heal a rash. Also, skip the antibacterial soap. If you’re germ phobic, All Terrain makes an all natural hand sanitizer called Hand Sanz.

There are now better choices than when my son was born in 2007. Concern over chemicals used to make some plastics more pliable has prompted some retailers and manufacturers to cut back on some of the questionable stuff. To be safe, you can avoid soft plastics, such as PVC plastics. Not all plastics are labeled, but you can steer clear of #3 and #7. Some brands label their baby products as “phthalate free” and/or “free of Bisphenol-A (BPA).” These are good choices, as are wooden and cloth toys. You can also look for toys made in Europe. The EU has stricter product standards than the US. We like the German HABA brand, (US-made) Melissa and Doug, and  Nova Natural. Two nice sites for well-made kids’ toys are A Toy Garden and  Maukilo. These can be expensive, but they usually last longer than the cheap, plastic stuff. That said, my son has plenty of (hard) plastic toys--and some soft ones, too--especially as he’s gotten older and doesn’t put everything in his mouth. I did avoid certain bath toys (vinyl bath books and PVC duckies) until recently.

I love hand-me-down toys, but I'm also alarmed by recent recalls of toys containing lead paint. So I'm more careful about painted toys, especially if I didn't buy them from a natural toy company. 

Paper or Cloth? Both.
What’s worse all those diapers piling up in the landfill, or the water it takes to wash the cotton ones? While you’ll find advocates on either side, most neutral parties call it a draw. That’s why I say, hedge your bets and use both. I was given a gift of a diaper service when my son was born, but didn't continue it. I'm concerned about anything that generates more truck trips in our smoggy region.
Here’s my trick: We use Seventh Generation chlorine-free or biodegradable Nature Babycare brand (available at Target) disposables. We add into the mix FuzziBunz cloth diapers. I try to put these on after I’ve already changed a poop. That way I can mix the merely wet diapers in with my regular laundry, skipping the need for a separate diaper load. Of course, you'll still get caught with the occasional double poop.

Confession: We also use conventional Huggies Overnite, because mommy will do anything to sleep in longer. And I've tried just about every brand that was on sale.

That extra baby laundry not only means you use more water, it also requires more energy. Assuage your guilt by trying a clothes line. Sunlight is a sterilizer, and it will bleach out some stains better than a stain-removing spray. On hot days, your laundry will dry faster on the line than in a dryer. And your house will stay cooler.

You can buy a retractable line at a home improvement store.

My tip:
Don’t worry about pinning things up perfectly, especially in summer months; one pin on a corner of a shirt or dish towel should do the trick. You can throw up more this way, too.

Undesirable chemicals are more likely to leech out of plastic when it’s heated or comes in contact with acidic foods. To avoid concerns over plastic baby bottles, try old fashioned glass bottles. We used Evenflo classic for our son, but Born Free also makes glass bottles, as well as plastic bottles that don’t contain Bisphenol-A (PBA). To reduce air in his tummy, we used inserts from the Dr. Brown’s brand bottles, and cut them to fit the glass bottles. Born Free bottles have their own vent system, but our son didn’t do well with their wide nipple. With our system, we put the glass bottles in the dishwasher, and washed the inserts and nipples by hand. Most nipples these days are silicon, which is a good choice.

We bought our bottles and other baby items at Natural Baby Catalog.

Whew! Okay, now try not to worry. These tips are intended as safeguards.

Recommended Referrences: The Green Guide and Environmental Health News

Friday, September 19, 2008

Baking at the Fair

LA County Fair

I consider many of our outings as rehearsals for our next visit. Such was the case yesterday with the LA County Fair. I’ve never understood why they hold this event during one of the hottest months of the year—in Pomona. We parked at the yellow gate, only to discover it was a long, hot walk to the other side of the fair grounds. That’s where the farm animals are. If you have little kids, park at the blue gate. There were certainly lots of animals, but mostly goats in the petting zoo. This seems to be because even a small goat can hold it’s own with a less-than-gentle toddler. Kids—the human ones, that is—can also pedal around a small corral on mini tractors. You can watch cows get milked by machines at 11:30, 1:30, 3:30, and 5:30.

Unless you live near Pomona, my take is, if you only have a little kid, you can wait on the fair until she’s older. Our son also rode on the Merry-Go-Round, and probably would have enjoyed the Garden Railroad—if we hadn’t had to start the expedition back to the car. But many of the little kid activities are available other places, in smaller and often cooler venues. The Tujunga Watermelon Festival (earlier in the summer) features a petting zoo, Merry-Go-Round, kid bands, and free watermelon.

Still, we’ll definitely return when the boy is older. There’s a lot to do for the 5+ set. Next time, we’ll bring a wagon instead of a stroller, and load it with a cooler. We spent a fortune on cold drinks yesterday.

Other attractions that look fun, if you can get to them at the right time: pig racing and stunt dog show.

The LA County Fair runs through September 28.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Weekend Adventure

I, too, enjoy a hike to a waterfall. But the easily accessible ones are usually crowded. One alternative: Millard Canyon. It’s an easy one mile round trip, and the trailhead isn’t far from Altadena. You probably won’t be alone, but you can avoid the throngs on other popular trails. One caveat: if you’re hiking with an infant, you’ll need to be a fairly adventurous hiker. There’s about a three-foot wall you’ll have to scramble over, making this a dead-end with a kid in a jogger. There are a few stream crossings which should be mild most of the year. This is a great trail for kids over age 5. Last fall, we ran into a Boy Scout troupe that was joyously tottering along rocks in the stream.

It’s is a lovely site. The canyon is festooned with alders, sycamores, maples and bay trees. The scent of California bay lingers in the canyon. The waterfall is like a tiny cathedral, jeweled with mosses and delicate ferns. A slender maple persists in the rock cliff.

Millard Canyon

From Loma Alta Drive in Alhambra, drive north to Chaney Trail and turn right. Follow Chaney Trail more than a mile, past the Sunset Ridge fire road (staying left), down into the canyon. From the parking lot, take the fire road to the Millard Canyon Campground. The trail is on the other side of the campground.

This trail can be quite cold, so bundle up fall through spring. We brought a picnic here last fall, but should have eaten it on the trail. The campground is a bit grungy and the view (and smell) of the toilets and an RV, isn’t too appealing.

If you do try this trail with an infant in a backpack carrier (as we have done), I recommend sending the other person ahead to test out wobbly rocks on stream crossings. Yes, I said “other person.” I do not recommend hiking alone, especially if you have a young child in tow. Even if it seems you’re close to civilization, a twisted ankle can cripple you and leave you vulnerable in a cold canyon—anywhere in the forest.

Always bring water, even if it doesn’t seem like a hot day.

Recommended trail guides:

Day Hiker’s Guide to Southern California by John McKinney

Trails of the Angeles: 100 Hikes in the San Gabriels by John W. Robinson. This is the definitive hiking guide to the Angeles National Forest. However, conditions on trails change, so be prepared. If unfamiliar with an area, stop at a ranger station for info on trail conditions. Always bring a trail map (available at outdoor stores).

If you’re interested in this forest, check out this radio story where I trekked the east fork of the San Gabriel River.
Angeles National Forest

The US Forest Service is releasing plans today for managing Southern California’s four national forests. The plans are largely concerned with meeting the needs of growing populations surrounding the forests: from accommodating power lines to reducing fires that people cause. To learn more about some of the issues facing the forests, KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol strapped on a backpack and headed into the Angeles National Forest.

(river sound here and under whole story)

SETZIOL: Some of the most breathtaking terrain in the Angeles National Forest is in the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, surrounding the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. On an August morning, Bill Corcoran of the Sierra Club leads two guests into the Wilderness. A sign says recent storms have eroded trails, creating steep drop offs.

CORCORAN Okay, let’s see how cold the water is.

(bird sound)

SETZIOL: Wearing overnight packs, we hike up river through groves of alders. But it’s not long before the trail disappears and we’re forced into the swiftly flowing river.

(plunging into river)

Corcoran has brought his colleague Juana Torrez, a young (fuller description, please) recently hired by the Club. She’s never been backpacking before. And she’s in for quite an adventure: the trip involves dozens of river crossings, sliding down sheer rock face, and slogging up steep slopes of scree.

(sound of walking on scree)

TORREZ: This is my first time. I think I’m doing well so far.

(walking on rock)

SETZIOL: A few miles upstream, we meet a Vietnam vet from Valencia. He’s sliding water around a pie tin.

“RECON” JOHN: My name is Recon John. Everbody’s got nicknames up here. Otherwise it’s Big John, Old John. I do a little gold mining, put it through a sluice, pan it out get a little bit of gold.

Recon John smiles, revealing a mouth that looks like someone nearly bowled a strike. There’s only one tooth standing

SETZIOL: finding stuff?
JOHN: Oh yeah … not enough where you make any money but you get some gold now and then.

SETZIOL: We continue upstream, listening to the cascading songs of canyon wrens.

(sound of canyon wren)

We next cross paths with a rock drummer from Pomona and his son.

SCOTT HILLMAN: I’m Scott Hillman, me and my son just camped at the narrows. Are they going to be able to preserve this wilderness? I know there’s pressure from other organizations to reduce the size.

CORCORAN: that would take an act of congress. But the club’s running a campaign to protect the 4 forests of So Cal and shine a spotlight on them in a way that maybe hasn’t been done before.

HILLMAN: Excellent. That really needs to be done.

SETZIOL: In an effort to influence forest management plans, the Sierra Club recently released a report chronicling threats to the forests. It calls on the Forest Service to do more to protect the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino National Forests from off-road vehicles, oil drilling, and other impacts. For example, in the Cleveland National Forest, they’re worried about proposals for new power transmission towers, a hydropower plant, and a highway and tunnel system connecting Riverside and Orange County. Bill Corcoran fears the forest plans will be too accommodating.

CORCORAN: Rather than trying to balance competing interests, it really ought to be protected for the highest interests which is the 95% of people who visit the forests, they want to look at wildlife, picnic, walk.

SETZIOL: Corcoran says Sierra Club members are disappointed that drafts of the Forest Service management plans recommend very few areas for the highest level of protection: official Wilderness status.

CORCORAN: Places that don’t have roads, that are untrammeled by man, isn’t broken up with power lines.

SETZIOL: The Forest Service says that’s because Wilderness areas, as designated by Congress, have lots of restrictions. Jody Noiron is supervisor of the Angeles National Forest.

NOIRON: I need latitude to be able to manage actively manage this forest, putting in fuel breaks, maintain fuel breaks. There’s a host of uses that are not allowed in wilderness … mountain bikes … another big thing is hand gliding.

NOIRON: But Noiron says the plan for the Angeles does recommend to Congress that 13,000 acres be added to existing wilderness areas, including Sheep Mountain Wilderness

She says other areas that environmental groups wanted earmarked for wilderness, will be protected by a forest service zoning system that bars roads and motorized vehicles in some areas, while still allowing other activities. She says more than 110,000 acres will receive this kind of protection.

(sound of river back up)

SETZIOL: By noon, we’ve set into a numbingly hot march along a bluff. Then suddenly there’s motion on the mountainside.

SETZIOL: (gasp!) There they are, look!
TORREZ: oh my gosh! They’re so close.

SETZIOL: Five big horn ewes and lambs scatter to our right. To our left, a ram, like a sentinel, watches us from the ridgeline. His large scimitar-shaped horns cut through the blue sky.

We cross the “Bridge to Nowhere”—a remnant of a now-collapsed road, and head into the narrows. The canyon walls close in on the river. Yucca and mountain mahogany spurt out of the 800-foot-tall rock face. Up top, the long limbs of big cone Douglas firs stretch out as if trying to span the chasm. Bill Corcoran wades into a swirling, shimmering, teal-colored pool.

CORCORAN: Oooh! That’s cold! Oh my god that feels good! AHH!!Ha!

(sound of tents zipping)
SETZIOL: A few hours later, we set up camp on a sandy bar near a bend in the river.

(sound of pots clanking)
Corcoran says more than 70 percent of the remaining open space in LA County is in this forest. And the Angeles gets an estimated 3 and half million visitors a year, thousands of them crowding into a stretch of the river south of here.

CORCORAN: There are no steps built down to the river … there’s a whole array of portable toilets. It’s like visiting a temporary camp. And there’s very little staffing by the Forest Service to interact with folks, to use it as a gateway for an understanding of the entire forest.

SETZIOL: Corcoran says that’s in part because most of the budget for local forests goes to preventing and fighting fires.

Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron says protecting life and property is the first priority. Education is important, but--

NOIRON: We cannot do it alone. We need to explore and expand opportunities for partnerships and volunteer programs.

(night sound fading up)

SETZIOL: As night falls, 23-year-old Juana Torrez reflects on her first wilderness trip:

TORREZ: It was everything I expected it to be. Beautiful vistas, wildlife … when I’m 53 I hope to be able to come back to my national forest and find the lands how I found them today.

SETZIOL: Then she falls sound asleep.

(crickets, night sounds)

In the Angeles National Forest, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Your Big Backyard

One of my favorite hikes with little kids is the Switzer trail in the Angeles National Forest. It’s easily accessible off the Angeles Crest Highway. We still haven’t made it to the waterfall, even though it’s an easy four mile roundtrip. (As I’ve said, everything takes longer with a toddler.) This trail hugs a stream and is shaded by alder trees. Even with other folks on the trail, you’ll feel serene. You will have to cross the stream a c
ouple times, but it should be easy most of the year. (Be aware that in the winter streams in the forest can be more difficult to cross.) Much of the trail is flat, thus fairly easy for little kids to ramble along. You could explore the first half mile or so with a jogger, but you’ll need to carry a little kid to go farther. (We use a Kelty Kids pathfinder). The trail is fairly popular, but not as crowded as other easily accessible sites, especially on weekdays.

Because of the elevation, this trail is (blessedly) cooler than the valleys below. Late fall through early spring, be prepared with an extra layer. There are picnic tables at the trail head, and some stinky pit toilets.

Switzer Trail
Angeles National Forest
Take the 2 Freeway from La Canada, up into the forest. If you don’t already have a day or annual pass, stop at the ranger station and buy one ($5, $30). You can also buy passes online or at some outdoor stores. Note: although this particular ranger station is usually staffed, not all stations are, especially on weekdays.

At the ranger station, you can also ask about a trail map. The trail head is 10.5 miles from La Canada. It’s on the right side, marked “Switzer picnic area.” Yes, there is parking up at the top, but it’s a long walk down, so drive down the road for a closer spot.

Note: unless I know exactly where I’m going, I always bring a trail map and/or guidebook on hikes. One place to get them is your local outdoor store, such as REI.

Recommended reading: Trails of the Angeles: 100 Hikes in the San Gabriels by John W. Robinson.

Nature Guide to the Mountains of Southern California by Bill Havert and Gary Gray.
Afoot and Afield in Los Angeles County by Jerry Schad. This is my favorite s
ingle-volume hiking guide for the greater LA area.

We’re fortunate to be able to take our child to many parks and other natural areas. But many kids in southern California don’t have the same opportunity. Here’s (a transcript of) my radio story about southern California kids with No Place to Play:

It’s all too apparent that obesity is one of the biggest health problems for California children. Here’s confirmation from a UCLA study: One child out of every four in the state doesn’t get the recommended amount of physical activity. So it seems many kids need to get off their keisters … and get into parks and playgrounds. But for many, it might not be laziness, but rather there’s simply … no place to play. KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol has the story.

(Soccer game and freeway sound up)
It’s dinnertime on a cool evening in Glassell Park. A bunch of 12-year-olds are practicing soccer on a field at Irving Washington Middle School, next to the 2 Freeway. Along the sideline, some older boys kick around a ball, which eventually sails into the game.

RAUL MACIAS: EH! Muchachos! No … (English VO: hey, boys! You can’t go in there.)

SETZIOL: One of the older boys - Gomecindo Macedo - says they were just trying to sneak in a little practice.

MACEDO: This league needs more parks for teams to practice and pla
y, like my team … we don’t practice because we don’t have a place to practice.

SETZIOL: Macedo is a member of the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association, which sponsors 110 soccer teams in northeast LA. Raul Macias founded the association to help kids get exercise, stay out of gangs, and become better citizens.

MACIAS: Most of the fields is very far … and most of the families are very low income, they don’t have cars, and to organize football clubs, soccer leagues is too expensive.

SETZIOL: Short on places to play, Macias, his kids and their parents pressured politicians … and won a new state park in nearby Cypress Park. They also pushed school and state officials to build this field, and keep it open after school.

The Anahuak kids aren’t alone in needing places to play. A recent UCLA survey found a quarter of teens in California say they don’t have a safe park in walking distance of their homes. Urban kids without access to safe parks were the most likely to report getting no physical activity-less than 10 minutes total--in a given week: 14% of them said they got no exercise.

ROBERT GARCIA: LA is park poor. We have fewer parks than other major cities.

SETZIOL: Robert Garcia of the Center for Law in the Public Interest.

GARCIA: Children of color living in poverty with no access to a car have the worst access to parks and recreation. And in a cruel irony, disproportionately white affluent people with fewer children than the county average have the best access to parks and recreation. So the people who need the most have the least.

SETZIOL: The Center for Law in the Public Interest compared park acrea
ge per person in LA County assembly districts. It found a third of an acre per thousand residents in South Central LA, compared with 16 acres per thousand people in parts of the San Fernando Valley.

Growing awareness of the problem has helped bring park bond money into LA County. Since its founding six years ago, the local Rivers and Mountains Conservancy has tapped 60 million dollars to upgrade existing parks and create new ones, including Lashbrook Park in El Monte.

On a recent morning, eight El Monte mothers stroll among young oak trees on the 2-acre site. They point out things they like to Irma Munoz of the non-profit Amigos de Los Rios.
MUNOZ: They really love the trees. They love the fact it uses native plants. They like the shade, the walking path.

SETZIOL: Amigos designed this park, and is helping the mothers plan one in their El Monte neighborhood. The mothers say they only have one tiny minipark … and it’s been taken over by gangs and drunks. The school playground is closed after school. Also, says Maria Valdez, many of the kids can’t play around their homes:

VALDEZ: They live in apartments. In the apartments, they don’t let them go out and play … some of the managers don’t want them to touch the walls.

So the kids wrote letters to the city asking for a park. And El Monte purchased an abandoned industrial site. Irma Munoz says Amigos asked the kids what they wanted in a park.

MUNOZ: And all of them drew little houses for the birds. They want a place for birds and butterflies and squirrels to be safe.

SETZIOL: Parks not only help kids stay fit physically, but a growing body of research shows they can help kids mentally. One study found daycare kids who played outside everyday were more able to concentrate than kids that didn’t. Another concluded access to green, outdoor spaces relieved symptoms of attention deficit disorder.

El Monte still needs to raise the money to build the mother’s park, and state bond money is starting to dry up. But Irma Munoz of Amigos de Los Rios says they hope to keep the costs down by using community volunteers. The mothers, including Francisca Morales, say they’ll plant trees, paint … and patrol the park.

(Spanish starts then Irma’s translation over)

MUNOZ: She will take joy and pleasure in seeing her children and grandchildren play outside of their homes because they’ve been locked up inside of their homes. They want them to be out playing and enjoying the fresh air.

In El Monte, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Peak-Bagger No More

Hiking with Little Kids, Pasadena

Once you have a kid, you have to adjust your hiking expectations. You’re likely to see less backcountry and more front country. I used to turn my nose up at the easily accessibly places most people hike. They were too tame, populated with too many people and dogs. But since our son was born, I’ve found a new appreciation for places like Eaton Canyon, in the foothills of the San Gabriels near Altadena. From a toddler’s perspective, dogs and kids make a trail exciting. Plus, there’s a stream, and many rocks to stick in his mouth or throw. The first time we came here, our son touched the water tentatively. The next time, he nearly jumped in.

Eaton Canyon County Park and Nature Center
1750 North Altadena Drive
Pasadena, CA 91107

Eaton Canyon is also a great place to start bird watching (the best viewing is in early morning or at dusk). The Pasadena chapter of Audubon hosts free walks here. The group leaders are patient with even the most rudimentary bird watching questions. I saw my first Phainopepla (males are black with a long tail and a spiky crest) here. I also enjoyed a close-up view look at--and listen to--a house wren.

Try picnicking under the large oaks near the nature center. (Note: no grass here, so a blanket is a must.) Much of the main trail can be trekked with a jogger, but if you want to go farther upstream, you’ll need a carrier for a young child. For a nice stream-side walk, head north from the nature center, cross the riverbed and turn left on the wide trail on the other side of the riverbed. To head upstream, keep to your left instead of taking trails that climb to your right. The beginning of this trail can be quite hot in summer, so start out early or try the shortcut below. Also, never hike without water.

When you get to the bridge, take one of the paths down toward the water, and follow the path under the bridge. This will keep you on route to the waterfall.

You probably won’t make it to the waterfall if you’re hiking with little kids. But here’s a shortcut to get you closer—if not all the way there. Instead of parking at the nature center, follow Altadena drive roughly a half mile farther north. Pull over at the dirt turnout on your right. Take the trail down into the canyon, cross the stream (or stream bed, depending on the time of year), and pick up the main trail on the other side.

Recommended reference:
For beginners, use field guides that list only local animals and plants such as Birds of the Los Angeles Region by Kimball L. Garrett, Jon L. Dunn, and Bob Morse or Birds of Los Angeles by Chris C. Fisher and Herbert Clarke

Once you’ve got a handle on the major types of birds, try my favorite bird guide: Kaufman Focus Guides’ Birds of North America by Ken Kaufman. The digitally enhanced photos are the best I’ve found for identifying birds.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Garden Stroll

Halloween at Descanso

Descanso Gardens
1418 Descanso Drive
La Canada, CA 91011

This is lovely garden, a great place to stroll or loll about on a blanket. A canopy of mature oaks keeps much of it fairly cool in the summer. There are special events on Father’s Day, Halloween and other holidays. These are fun—but quite crowded. Picnicking is allowed on a few days, but check first, so you don’t end up like we did last Halloween: sneaking our homemade sandwiches into the cafĂ©. Mateo was seven months-old then. He sat on that giant pumpkin you see above. Then he took in the view from his baby bjorn as we ambled under the oaks. White-crowned sparrows hopped along the ground. A spotted towhee foraged under a shrub. Later, Mateo played with his dad’s hat on a blanket under a ginkgo tree. Several princesses and Wonder Woman toddled by.

On a more recent visit, Mateo enjoyed running up and down the bridges in the Japanese garden. And comparing his goldfish crackers to the …gold fish (koi).

Other Descanso attractions: a train for kids over 18-months, nature walks for the over two-year set, a pond with ducks, and a rose garden with plenty of paths, arbors, and benches to explore.

Recommended reading: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children form Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books).

Getting Out There...with Kids

My son started talking around his first birthday. Now, at 17 months, he’s using his vocabulary to get a sticky grip on his world.
“MommyNO!” he bellows.
“MommyLap” he asserts.
“Peeck up,” he chirps.
“Car! Car!” “Truck! Truck!” “Backhoe” “Airplane sky” “Kitty nice”
“Caw-Wee-Bee-bee” (I have no idea.)

Among his most frequent requests are “outside,” “park,” and “me go,” which he says so wistfully you’d think we lock him in his room. But ever since he was born, my husband and I made a commitment to getting him—and ourselves--outdoors. As a newborn he would gaze up from a blanket at the lacey limbs of our Jacaranda tree. We’d picnic in parks. And, at about nine months, we began hiking with him in a Kelty carrier (pictured above). Check this site for some LA County sites you might like to explore, and some tips I hope will help.

Park Play and Nature Walk: Debs Park
Ernest E. Debs Regional Park
4235 Monterrey Road
Los Angeles, CA 90032
Audubon Center at Debs Park
4700 North Griffin Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90031

Most people only know about one, but there are two destinations at Debs Park. For a great place to picnic and stroll with a jogger, visit the section off Monterrey Road. Because of the lawns and smooth paths, this is a good choice for infants and young toddlers. We enjoyed a Labor Day picnic with friends here. There are ample tables, shady trees and lots of grass. After chomping on fried chicken, we took the kids for a stroll. Look for a paved (but closed to vehicles) road to the right of the parking lot. It’s easier with a jogger, but a regular stroller will work, too. Don’t be put off by the steep hill at the beginning: The road levels off soon, and you’ll be rewarded with views of downtown and the San Gabriel Mountains. (We took Mateo’s first Christmas photo here, holding him in the Y of a pine tree. With mountain backdrop, the scene looked surprisingly alpine.) Turn either way at the top; it’s a short loop past a pond. When you return, you might enjoy a cold treat or drink, as an ice cream truck frequents the park.

Don’t miss the Audubon Nature Center at Debs Park. It’s part of the environmental group’s initiative to help city kids discover nature. Just check that it’s open, even if you only want to hike the trails. We showed up one Sunday with a whole bunch of kid junk and a picnic, only to find the area closed and gated.

When we did make it in, we discovered we could have left many of our accoutrements at home. Audubon will lend you joggers, back carriers, binoculars—first come, first serve, of course. We enjoyed the native plant restoration around the center, including arbors cloaked with native grapes. (Sadly, much of the surrounding hillsides are smothered with invasive, non-natives such as mustard and fennel.) Someone at the nature center can help you identify the plants and birds you see. And your critter may get to pet one of their critters, such as the snake. A large map lets kids (and adults) post their sightings.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Los Angeles River

From my radio series on the LA River

When you think of the Los Angeles River what images comes to mind? Concrete? Maybe trash? Dirty water? But when some people look at the river they see willows and waterfowl—and they envision a future where the LA River is at the center of a greener city. All this week, KPCC’s environmental reporter, Ilsa Setziol, explores the dreams—and realities—of revitalizing the Los Angeles River.

(River sound)
SETZIOL: Once there was a wild river in Los Angeles. And the river had the run of the place. It wandered all over the LA basin, sometimes gushing, sometimes tricking. It nourished Native American villages. And created a landscape that delighted the first Spanish explorers, who noted the “very good water: pure and fresh.”

But even in the 19th Century, Angelenos were real estate hungry. They wanted land that belonged to the river. And when flooding damaged property and killed 59 people in 1938, they demanded the river be tamed. By the 1960s, most of the 52-mile-long river was forced into a cement channel. It became a dumping ground, a conduit for waste water. It was a joke: “that’s our river, that sewer that looks like another freeway.”

REYES: The river became essentially where you hid your gaslines, your pipelines, your powerlines, your rail lines,

SETZIOL: Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes.

REYES: and you let those people live there so it became a social and economic divider, a place you send those other people to the other side of the tracks.

SETZIOL: But in the 1980s a group of artists saw all that concrete as a blank canvas, a place for a different vision. Poet Lewis McAdams and others founded Friends of the Los Angeles River.

MCADAMS: The basic line was meeting people down by the river, making the river a place where people gather. The reason the city is here is because of the LA River

SETZIOL: McAdams walks through newly ploughed ground at what’s called the Cornfields. This former rail yard near the river in downtown is being turned into a state park. McAdams watches an evening performance piece created for the site. A dancer lifts a lantern to illuminate multicolored ears of corn attached to a chainlink fence.

MCADAMS: Most people can’t see what’s not there, only artists and schizophrenics can see what’s not there. The only people who could even imagine what I was talking about were artists.

SETZIOL: What McAdams was talking about was a return of a real river: with species that had disappeared, such as the steelhead trout. After legal and public relations efforts by Friends of the LA River, local officials started to see beyond the concrete. LA County developed a new masterplan and spent a hundred million dollars on trees, bike paths, and other improvements. Today, throughout the watershed, Angelenos are starting to gather in new parks, experiencing the river in places that used to be fenced off.

(fade up drumming sound & crowd chatter)
As the performance concludes, the audience gathers around a bonfire enclosed by river rock.

(bike bells) (drumming continued)
A group of cyclists wheel in. They pop open beers. Nelson Ornelas, Eric Crawford, and Philip Franco, kick around ideas for the river.

ORNELAS: I seen this city live up. I seen it changing. This used to be a railroad track, we used to come here and party my gang…I love this transformation. This city’s got so much vibes and so much potential.
FRANCO: We need this water. We live a desert
CRAWFORD: Couldn’t there ultimately be cafes on the LA River where you could have a glass of wine.
FRANCO: Maybe taco trucks certain parts of the day. (laughter)
(fade down on additional chat)

SETZIOL: As the men talk, their chatter and the drumming seem to pulse into the dark downtown sky, creating currents of anticipation.

For the bikers and many others, the once neglected river has become a focal point for ideas about a greener city. And many Angelenos now want a lot from it: more parks, cleaner water, a fix for neglected neighborhoods, and a healthier inner city.

LA City Councilman Ed Reyes:

REYES: I want to rezone the corridor, and create a river front district that has all these different elements of open space, natural habitats, as well as economic development opportunities.

(Riversound up)

MELANIE WINTER: It’s the one thing that connects all of our communities besides our freeways.

SETZIOL: Melanie Winter squats on a boulder in the middle of the river as it races through Sepulveda Recreation area in the San Fernando Valley. There’s no concrete on the bottom of the river here, but plastic bags, auto parts, and shopping carts are strewn over the riverbed and in the willows.

(roaring river sound)
WINTER: It’s not just a case of wanting it back, we need it back, for so many reasons. And the river is fundamental to making this a healthy place to be again. There’s a way for us to coexist with this river, to allow it to serve us and to allow us to appreciate it.
(roaring sound cross fade)

Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

To hear the rest of the series, check out this link.

Recommended reading: Down By the Los Angeles River, Joe Linton, Wilderness Press

Climate Change in California

From my Series on Global Warming in California
(aired Fall 2006)

To many Californians, the Sierra Nevada is a special, even sacred place. It helped inspire the American preservation movement. Today, millions of people flock to its national parks, perhaps lured by the idea of wild nature, untrammeled by man. But as humans alter the world’s atmosphere, changes are a foot in Sierra parks. KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol hiked to treeline in Yosemite to bring us the second report in our series on global warming in California.

SETZIOL: Natural forces sculpted the land we know as Yosemite, over millions of years, into some of the planet’s most dramatic scenery. Glaciers cut into granite; snow-fed rivers carved out canyons. The glaciers have retreated, but snow fields continue to shape the Sierra. On a Summer day, Jan Van Wagtendonk of the U.S. Geological Survey leads me up Parker Pass on the eastside of the park.
(creek sound, with birds)

WAGTENDONK: Look at all the lupine and onions there along the stream.
It’s still spring up here. Here it is midAugust andtheflowers are in full bloom. ..It’s nice to be able to come up here and experience spring all over again.

SETZIOL: Fed by slowly melting snowfields, creeks here rush and gurgle in the summer. They water meadows, and sustain amphibians, and other animals through the dry season.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen with human-induced climate change. But one of the surest projections is loss of snow. Climate researchers say by the middle of this century the Sierra snow pack could decrease by roughly a third. Jan Van Wagtendonk says that could be a big problem.

WAGTENDONK: Much of the vegetation … depends on that snow melt. Mostly in the upper montane zone, for metering out of the water, through early summer, allows the red fir forest to sustain themselves. If all that shifts to rain and the rain goes downhill in the wintertime, they’ll be much less water available.

(sound of walking)
SETZIOL: As we climb from 9 to 10 to 11,000 feet, we discuss global warming projections for Western forests: larger fires…the possibility of new diseases moving up the mountains as they warm…stress on animals.

WAGTENDONK: the mountain yellow-legged frog would be affected dramatically if the streams dry up sooner.

SETZIOL: Then the forest falls away, and we emerge onto a pass between rocky peaks. Twisted vegetation, stunted by wind and cold, clings to thin soil. Reclining under a vast blue sky, snowfields bask in the sun.

WAGTENDONK: I never cease to be amazed. Always in awe of the grandeur.
(call of nutcracker)

SETZIOL: A trio of Clark’s nutcrackers perches in some white bark pines.

SETZIOL: so he’s gleening the seeds.
WAGTENDONK: out of the cone. He’s cleaning the pitch off his bark.

(bird sound under)
SETZIOL: The bird and the tree depend on each other. The nutcracker lives off the pine’s seeds. To store them for winter, the bird caches them in the ground, planting some seeds that otherwise would have remained locked in cones, or eaten by squirrels. Van Wagtendonk says global warming threatens both species in the Sierra.

WAGTENDONK: The white bark pine is very sensitive to summer heat. If the climate continued to be too warm over long extended period of time, they would be squeezed of the top. The way the white bark pine goes will be the way the Clark’s Nutcracker will have to go.

SETZIOL: Along with polar animals, species that live on the tops of mountains are most at risk from warming. Scientists are already documenting changes. (Although it’s unclear how much of current warming can be attributed to human activities instead of natural variability.) Jim Patten of UC Berkeley discovered some Sierra mammals have moved their ranges upslope more than a thousand feet in the last century. It’s a harbinger of how nature will respond to human-induced warming. A cute little cousin of the rabbit, the American pika, is losing ground. Scientists think it’s because it can’t tolerate warmer summers.

PATTEN: If it is indeed responding directly to temperature. That is an animal that’s going to get pushed off the crest of the Sierras. You get up to 14,000 feet and there’s no place to go. They’ll go extinct in the Sierras, and they’ll go extinct through out most of their range in the lower 48 in the US.

SETZIOL: Also at risk says Jim Patten: the alpine chipmunk.

PATTEN: It’s limited to the central sierra, it doesn’t occur outside the Yosemite, Sequoia Kings area. And so once it’s gone. It’s extinct forever.

(wind sound)
SETZIOL: At the top of Parker Pass the wind careens through gaps in the granite. Jan Van Wagendonk of the US Geological Survey rests at the lip of a turquoise lake.

WAGTENDONK: We’re at parker pass lake, a glacial tarn. Right at the point where the glaciers came through this area…And the snow is still here. Beautiful, beautiful day.

SETZIOL: Reluctantly, we turn to go. Van Wagtendonk tells me Yosemite’s climate has shifted cooler, warmer, drier, over hundreds of thousands of years. So, I ask him…why worry about global warming?

WAGTENDONK: I don’t want to be responsible for it. No! These ecosystems evolved over time without our intervention, we don’t want to make it worse for them one way or another.

SETZIOL: We descend. Past the chattering nutcrackers…down into the rustling pines…along the edges of meadows…and across creeks of steady, flowing, waters from above.
(bird and creek sound)

From Yosemite National Park, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

Find the audio and the rest of the series on the KPCC News Specials page.

Recommended Reading: The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Montly Press)

Growing Green

Zucchini, beans and turtle in my garden

Tips for an environmentally friendly garden.

Here’s the first of my two-part radio story on eco-minded gardening, as it aired on 89.3, KPCC last month.

More and more people are shopping at farmers markets, as they seek out food that’s fresher and more environmentally friendly. Others have taken what they see as the next step in the green revolution: growing their own. But is home gardening really good for the Earth? It depends on how you go about it.

: The Bronson family’s patio, in a neighborhood near LA’s Highland Park, used to be an unrelenting stretch of concrete. Earlier this year, they ripped out some of it, then put in a trio of three-by-five containers. Now they’re bursting with fruits and vegetables: A five-foot tall heirloom tomato displays fruits bigger than your fist, wispy chives shelter under it. Beneath a pyramid of leaves, melons are protected in cradles made from pantyhose. Two-year-old Maris is eager to show off the garden.

MARIS: Potatoes!
SETZIOL: What do you like?
MARIS: Salad

Maris’s mom Jessica says the garden is part of a larger effort to make their lives more environmentally sensitive.

BRONSON: Our idea for it began with an increasing interest in trying to be more self-sustaining, and also to be more aware of where things come from, and producing a local economy.

Jessica Bronson says their small garden has attracted a lot of birds and bees. And it’s kept their patio cool. They practice organic gardening, so they don’t use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

But with the state in a drought, should we be pouring water on gardens? Most of our water is imported. And pumping it long distances uses a lot of energy. Indeed, state officials estimate nearly 20 percent of all the power used in the state goes to transport and treat water.

PETER GLEICK: So if water for gardens means a lot of new water has to be moved from one place to another that’s not a great idea.

SETZIOL: Peter Gleick heads the Pacific Institute, a research group.

GLEICK: But instead if we could figure out how to reduce other uses of water and use some of it to grow food that’s not a bad idea.

Gleick says, to find wasted water, you don’t have to look farther than the end of your garden hose.

GLEICK: The largest irrigated crop in the US is lawn. And that lawn uses a huge amount of water. It’s ornamental, not necessary.

Horticulturalist Lili Singer says ripping out lawn is a good place to start.

SINGER: If you’re taking out grass, or azalea, or another water needy thing, and put in a vegetable garden you may be using the same amount of water, but you’re getting more out of it.

SETZIOL: I asked Singer to visit my backyard garden. Wearing a broad-brimmed staw hat, she crouches down to watch a bee tunnel into a large, yellow zucchini flower.

SINGER: A lot of plants…need a lot less water than people give them. So really thick mulch—we’re talking at least 4 inches around the plants—…will hold water in so you’re not using as much.
SETZIOL: Are there certain plants that are good choices that aren’t especially water hungry?
SINGER: A lot of the herbs, rosemary, thyme, sage, are all very drought tolerant. …In terms of annuals like pumpkin, beans, squash, they’re doing so much production in so short a time, … they’re going to need more water. …Zucchinis can take water almost everyday because they’re growing so fast…but the amount you get

SETZIOL: Andy Lipkis, president of the environmental group TreePeople, suggests other ways to be water smart in the garden.

LIPKIS: You can water with drip irrigation, so you cut down in that case sometimes 60-80% of your water use, because you’re putting drippers right where your roots are.

SETZIOL: Lipkis sits next to a miniature creek—part of a TreePeople model that demonstrates more sustainable water use.

LIPKIS: You can move to the next step which is harvesting your gray water….You can take the hose from your washer and extend it right to your garden. If you can’t get it there you can have it fill some buckets.

SETZIOL: If you go this route, you should learn about local gray-water ordinances, such as requirements to put the water into the ground, instead of spraying it. And, Lipkis says, your plants will be happier if you use environmentally friendly detergents.

There are many other ways to be green in the garden. To reduce the need for pesticides, grow a variety of flowering plants, including natives such as ceonothus. They attract ladybugs and other insects that eat pests. Also, let your flowers go to seed, so birds will move in and eat both seeds and insects.

Tomorrow, we’ll examine another tool for environmentally friendly gardens: composting.

Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

In part two of this story, I discuss the virtues of home composting. Listen Now.

Recommended reading: Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner (Peguin) First published in 1986, this book is a classic and still relevant

Sparking the Fires

Nature-loving Southern Californians are endangering the landscapes they love
By Ilsa Setziol
Excerpted from Verdugo Monthly

For many people it’s the dream home: a place tucked into the foothills where you can dart out the back door to escape the city. You can clear the smog from your lungs, inhale the spicy-sweet, dusty fragrance of the hillside, and hear the tap, tap, tap of a woodpecker working an oak tree.
But this version of the good life is imperiling some of rarest ecosystems on earth. Southern California is considered a biodiversity hotspot, a place with many unique species that are threatened with extinction. Much of the habitat has been bulldozed and what remains is threatened by another side effect of civilization: fire.
“More people on the landscape has meant more fires,” says Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “Today we have more fire ignition than we ever had historically. And humans account for 95 to 99 percent of all the fires we see in this region.”
California has the largest so-called “urban-wildland interface”—areas where human habitation cuts into wilderness—in the nation. That means more power lines that can snap, more roadsides where catalytic converters can ignite grasses, more barbeques. No foothill community should consider itself protected.
On a balmy fall morning, botanist Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity hikes a section of the Verdugo Mountains near Burbank. She notes that two important plant communities intermingle there: evergreen shrubs collectively known as chaparral, and an even rarer group called coastal sage scrub. “Coastal sage scrub used to be widespread, but it’s now one of our most imperiled habitats,” she says. “Because it grows in desirable foothill areas, it’s been heavily impacted by development.” Anderson points out some characteristic plants: fragrant purple and white sages; buckwheat still displaying dried, rust-red blossoms; and the yellow daisies of California brittlebush.
Examining a hillside that burned a few years back, Anderson is pleased to see new growth sprouting from the base of charred shrubs. “But if they burn again in a few years it will set them back; there will be less energy in the root mass for them to resprout,” she says. “The natural fire rate here is estimated at once every 50 to 120 years. If fires burn every 20 years, it could eliminate them.” Especially vulnerable are plants that regenerate primarily by seed, such as California lilac (Ceanothus). “If the young plants are killed before they drop enough seeds, ultimately no seeds are left to produce future generations,” says Anderson.
Frequent fires will benefit some plants. “What’s going to come back are invasive annual weeds,” says Rick Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute. “You’ll get acres of grasses.” He notes with chagrin that these non-natives are highly flammable.
Biologists are beginning to document swaths of southern California that have been converted from native shrublands to fields of Mediterranean grasses and other weeds. These new landscapes aren’t good habitat for wildlife, and they’re vulnerable to erosion.
So Jon Keeley of the USGS was alarmed to learn that, in San Diego County alone, 60,000 to 70,000 acres that were torched in 2003 had burned again last fall.
If you’re an outdoorsy type and inclined to reading the interpretive signs at parks, we’ve probably just confused you. Haven’t those rangers been telling people that forests need more fire? Indeed, in many parts of the American West—especially conifer forests, such as the one around Lake Arrowhead—people have been all too successful at suppressing natural fires. It’s sparked a different ecological problem: overstocked forests of dry bark-beetle-infested trees. For most of the Southland, though, the challenge is too many human-caused fires.
If you’re not discouraged already, contemplate this: Scientists expect global warming to exacerbate the problem. They project that warming temperatures will increase the frequency and severity of fires in the American West. Some say it’s already happening.
Biologist Mike Allen of UC Riverside studies how ecosystems respond to human interference. Much of his research is conducted at the James Reserve near Idyllwild, a graceful spot where wild azaleas and rare lemon lilies bloom alongside a small creek. Western Bluebirds flit among ponderosa pines. Allen says the destruction of native plant communities isn’t just an aesthetic issue. “It’s really a loss of a functioning system that cleans the air and water, and provides food.” He says fire, combined with development, pollution, and invasive species, is putting tremendous stress on local habitats. His big worry is a tipping point: “Ecosystems collapse in nonlinear ways. It’s one of those Jenga things. You can pull out pieces, but all of a sudden you pull out the last piece, and the whole thing tumbles quickly.”
Many scientists say projected population growth is the looming threat—for wildlands and the people who live near them. Already, says Keeley, “Population growth has outstripped the ability of firefighters to protect people.”
Keeley recommends joining a local chapter of the Fire Safe Council. “Homeowners need to think ahead of time, to ensure their community has sufficient [brush] clearance to reduce the likelihood flames will move in. But they need to be aware that’s not enough. In San Diego they cleared. All clearance gets you is reduced fuels to allow firefighters to get in. But often there aren’t enough firefighters.” Strong winds can make it impossible to stop a fire, and new developments are often built on steeper—more dangerous—terrain.
Keeley says municipal planners should be much more conservative about where they permit new development. Halsey agrees: “The [2006] Esperanza fire: That house [where four firefighters died] should never have been built. At the top of steep canyons you get unstoppable waves of fire. The houses literally blow up.” Halsey watched the recent Witch fire in San Diego County devour his neighbors’ homes, narrowly sparing his. He says the fire didn’t die down until the wind ceased.
The Glendale Fire Department has these tips for homeowners: make sure your sprinklers are working, remove weeds and cut grass regularly, dispose of dead vegetation, and don’t place plants too close to structures or eaves. Also, store flammable liquids with care, clear debris from your roof, and create a home escape plan.
Still, making a home safer doesn’t erase its environmental footprint. In the Verdugos, botanist Ileene Anderson strode down a fire road, hopped into her little yellow truck, and headed west along Sunset Canyon Drive. She stopped to check out a cluster of stucco houses perched on a steep ridge. Homeowners had diligently cleared vegetation, leaving only a few buckwheat and Lauren sumac plants. “There’s nothing natural except a few token species that have been able to survive,” she laments. “Brush clearance definitely creates an ecological problem. So do firebreaks; they are highways for invasive plants. Sadly, if you value proximity to the natural world, you have to blitz what you sought to be near.”