Of glaciers and rivers

Tim Palmer knows Western landscapes. He knows rivers and glaciers. He knows they’re in peril.

With 22 books so far, the award-winning photographer and writer has spent a lifetime drawing on the beauty of the natural world, living a life of adventure and weaving a story meant to inspire conservation of what remains.

Palmer will present a slideshow based on his two recent books, “Rivers of California” and “California Glaciers,” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Lucchesi Vineyards and Winery Tasting Room in Grass Valley. There is a suggested donation is $10.

Three local conservation groups: Snowlands Network, South Yuba River Citizens League, and Sierra Watch will co-sponsor the event showcasing the state’s exquisitely vulnerable and most primary of resources — water — at a time when drought and climate change cast noticeable shadows.

“With this year’s drought and low snowpack, Tim’s insights will help us better understand how a changing climate impacts the Yuba River watershed’s ecosystem and downstream fish habitat,” said SYRCL’s Executive Director Caleb Dardick.

A naturalist who has explored many of California’s rivers with canoe and whitewater raft, Palmer knows firsthand what’s at stake.

“Water means everything in California, especially in a drought,” Palmer said.

He is known to have one of the most complete photo collections of rivers in the U.S., according to a bio of him in a Wild & Scenic Film Festival publication.

Outdoor adventure is the backbone of Palmer’s work. For more than two decades, he lived in his van, traveling to many of America’s last wild places with pen and lens.

By foot and skis, Palmer documented California’s mountains. In the summer of 2010, he climbed and photographed many of the state’s 130 disappearing glaciers.

“They’re very symbolic of snowpack in California, which of course is going to diminish significantly in our lifetime … That means a year like this will be kind of a new normal,” he said.

Glaciers respond to long-term changes in average temperature and precipitation, serving as barometers of climate change. Around the globe decades of warming is showing dramatic reductions in ice cover.

Some glaciers in Yosemite have already vanished since John Muir’s lifetime and last year, geologists determined that Yosemite Park’s iconic Lyell Glacier had stopped moving, death in glacier terms.

Statewide, snowpack is expected to dwindle by 25 percent by the middle of the century, according to the Department of Water Resources.

Palmer is no stranger to Nevada County. The author of dozens of magazine articles and river studies for conservation campaigns, he and his writer wife, Ann Vileisis, lived here in the winter of 1993 to write the 180-page “book” considered fundamental in the Wild and Scenic campaign of the South Yuba.

Copies of “The South Yuba: A Wild and Scenic Report” are available at SYRCL headquarters.

Palmer has been a special guest on activist panels and in 2013 introduced the film “Chasing Ice” at SYRCL’s Wild & Scenic Film Festival.

An avid Sierra Nevada enthusiast and backcountry skier, Palmer spent a winter living at Donner Pass, the headwaters of the South Yuba River.

“I think that the Yuba Basin is a very critical element in the future of California,” Palmer said.

With population growth and drier conditions, Palmer sees water supply as a preamble to this century’s looming water crisis.

Exempting the Smith River on California’s northernmost coastal corner, virtually every major river in the state has been dammed or diverted.

Development on rivers has nearly reached its max, with 1,400 dams now dotting waterways in California.

Palmer estimates the state’s wild or “reasonably natural” rivers are down to 10 percent of historic landscapes.

“It’s really just a remnant of what it was,” Palmer said.

Uncertain times bring hope

Climate change and diminishing snowpack have profound effects on the resources that local conservation groups are trying to protect, said Executive Director Laurel Harkness of Snowlands Network.

Based in Nevada City, Snowlands Network is a nonprofit organization that works with 12 national forests in California and Nevada to ensure winter recreation and the protection of winter wild lands remain in balance.

Snowlands worked with SYRCL and Sierra Watch in 2008 in an effort to save Donner Summit from a large development surrounding Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort.

“Tim Palmer’s images and insights are so important and relevant to the work that each of these organizations does,” said Harkness, who met Palmer at a Friends of the River function.

“When he offered to come to town, I could not pass up the opportunity, especially in a winter that is as dry and warm (and scary) as this one,” she said.

Snowpack from the Sierra Nevada feeds the river and high mountain lakes critical to water deliveries downstream.

In an early February snow survey, Nevada Irrigation District determined that snowpack was 7 percent of average and asked customers to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 20 percent.

“All is connected within the watershed, and all that happens in the high mountains has an impact downstream. No question,” Harkness said.

From year to year, Snowlands Network has noted a trend of higher snow levels and shorter winters, impacting ecosystems and the way humans recreate.

Some winters, lower elevation areas like Steephollow — popular among cross-country skiers — have no snow coverage.

As a result, skiers seek higher elevation areas such as the Tahoe Meadows near Mt. Rose, concentrating demand for a limited and diminishing resource, Harkness said.

“Over the last 20 years, the number of people recreating in the winter landscape has doubled, so the concentration of demand on this diminishing resource presents challenges from a land-use management perspective,” Harkness said.

Despite many manipulations to mountains and rivers, Palmer sees great human value in what is left — a chance for people to connect with nature.

“We still have these great places nearby. That’s an extraordinary thing,” he said.

Palmer’s presentation in Grass Valley comes with three messages: There is a tremendously valuable natural estate that can still be found in California; these natural places are under enormous pressure by development; and thousands of organizations and people are working for better stewardship of these last wild places and are committed to saving them.

“All of that gives me great hope,” Palmer said.

Contact Freelance Writer Laura Brown at laurabrown323@gmail.com or 530-913-3067.


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The Union Updated Feb 27, 2014 10:22PM Published Feb 27, 2014 10:22PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.