The Mountains That Remade America

This is the first post in our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Craig Jones, author of The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

Earth Day falls the day after John Muir’s birthday, an apropos juxtaposition as Muir’s influence can be found in the concept of lobbying on behalf of the earth. Although Emerson and Thoreau promoted nature, theirs was an eastern nature that was recovering from settlement; Muir’s untamed western nature led him to a far more active role.

When John Muir began wandering the Sierra Nevada in 1868, its western foothills were already savaged by the Gold Rush. Forests were being felled for timber to support the deep mines in the Mother Lode and Comstock. Yet, almost peculiarly, the High Sierra where Muir wandered was free of settlements, and mines, and loggers. It was also relatively empty of Native Americans, largely because of disease, warfare, dislocation and starvation, but also because the high part of the range was never more than a seasonal refuge for the tribes that otherwise lived on the range’s flanks. The absence of miners and Indians was because of the granite backbone of the range, too high to settle and barren of minerals. It was the absence of nearly all things human, quite distinct from eastern lands, that led Muir to state “that wildness is a necessity” and note “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” Muir had removed people from wilderness.

Muir’s literary excision of native peoples from these wild lands they had used elevated unsettled land to a higher plane. While Easterners hiked through second growth forest between towns, Muir demanded landscapes wholly untouched by civilization. In observing the growth of timbering and sheepherding, he saw his touchstone lands at risk. This led him to political activism instead of mere literary adventurism; he began to write advocacy pieces for Eastern magazines; he would lobby politicians to create new parks. In his struggles to protect lands around Yosemite Valley, Muir recognized that a broader organization was needed. And so he helped to found the Sierra Club.

Muir’s Sierra Club had a unique aspect to its mission, stating in the original Agreement of Association in 1892 to “enlist the support and co-operation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” This was no mere hiking club, though that was part of the club’s persona; this was a genuine lobbying organization from its start in 1892.

In the year prior to the first Earth Day, the club went to court on behalf of a mountain valley named Mineral King in the Sierra that would lead, about a year after the first Earth Day, to a cherished opinion made by Justice William O. Douglas: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.” Muir’s club had helped make it possible for the earth itself to be a plantiff in U.S. courts.

Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and in prominent earth-science journals. He is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics, and he blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.

Unanswered Questions about Sierra Birds: White-breasted Nuthatch

Birds of the Sierra Nevada presents the most up-to-date information available about the natural histories of birds of the Sierra Nevada, the origins of their names, the habitats they prefer, how they communicate and interact with one another, their relative abundance, and where they occur within the region. In this guest post, Ted Beedy and Ed Pandolfino address the implications of a possible species split of the White-breasted Nuthatch, the identification challenges that may crop up as a result, and how Sierra birders can help distinguish species by learning their unique calls. The authors will be on tour giving presentations on birds of the Sierra over the next several months. View a schedule of their upcoming events (PDF)


Unanswered Questions about Sierra Birds: White-breasted Nuthatch
by Ted Beedy and Ed Pandolfino

In our recently published book, Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution, we included a section briefly describing some questions about Sierra birds that remain largely unanswered. In many cases, the key to solving these mysteries may be the observations that birders can make during their visits to the range. Examples include questions such as, Where do Harlequin Ducks, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Ducks, and Hooded Mergansers breed in the Sierra? Of these four ducks, the beautiful Harlequin has nearly vanished from the Sierra. The other three ducks, while not considered breeders in the range historically, have been found more and more frequently in the breeding season in recent years. Backpackers and hikers who visit remote corners of the Sierra Nevada should take careful notes of their observations of any of these and report them via a public data base like eBird ( The study of birds is one of the few areas of science where the observations of non-professionals can still make a significant contribution. The case of the White-breasted Nuthatch, which we cover below, is another great example.

Birders need to prepare themselves for yet another species split. The American Ornithologists’ Union may soon divide the “White-breasted Nuthatch” into three separate species across North America. In the Sierra, we would then have two different species of White-breasted Nuthatches, one mainly on the west side (currently known as subspecies Sitta carolinensis aculeata) and the other mainly on the east side (S. c. tenuissima). This change is going to present birders with a major identification dilemma, because most experts agree that consistently distinguishing between these two in the field is nearly impossible based on physical appearance alone. Therefore many birders will rely on the subspecies range map published in the sixth edition of National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Figure 1). There is just ONE big problem with this map…it is WRONG with respect to the actual ranges of these subspecies in the Sierra Nevada.

Figure 1: based roughly on map in National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America – Sixth edition

This map is likely based on one previously published (Grinnell and Miller 1944), which relied on specimens which were probably mis-identified. In fact, those same authors note that, “birds [ID’d as aculeata] from the crest and east slope of the central and southern Sierra Nevada, show an approach in characters to S. c. tenuissima.”

Thankfully, these subspecies give very different call notes which can be easily distinguished in the field (for a comparison listen to the vocalizations of aculeata and tenuissima recorded by Barney Kroeger in the Sierra.)

Based on our observations and recordings and those of others, we know that the actual border between these subspecies’ ranges in the northern Sierra is closer to the red line in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Likely actual range border shown in red

It remains a mystery exactly what the range borders of these two taxa are, especially in the areas north of Lake Tahoe and in the southern Sierra. Observations near the southern end of the Sierra in Tulare County confirm that the two subspecies can both be found in the same area near Chimney Creek Campground (Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett, pers. comm.).

Now here is where anyone visiting the Sierra can make important contributions to our knowledge. Birders should learn to recognize these calls and submit their observations through eBird, identifying the subspecies actually heard. If you are unsure of your ability to distinguish the calls, you can simply use the video option on your smart phone or digital camera. The video can then be linked to the eBird submission and others can listen to confirm whether the calls were correctly identified. The more observations of this type that are made, the closer we are to determining the actual ranges of these two very different sounding subspecies (or soon-to-be separate species).


Grinnell, J. and A. H. Miller. 1944. The Distribution of the Birds of California, Cooper Ornithological Club, Berkeley, CA.

Sierra Alpine Wildflowers

Introduction to California Mountain WildflowersLong after the summer grasses of California turn golden in the valleys and foothills, spring is in full bloom in the High Sierra. Here on the highest peaks above 10,000 feet, flowers of fantastic color and abundance can be found all through July and into August as they take advantage of warm days and melting snow.

This ranks as one of California’s foremost wildflower displays and lucky are the mountaineers willing to ascend into the lofty realms of bare granite and thin air. The rare and widely scattered Sky Pilot (Polemonium eximium) blooms here in dense balls of purple-blue flowers heavy with a potent skunky smell, which attracts pollinators. John Muir’s favorite flower, Mountain Pride (Penstemon newberryi), carpets granite slopes with brilliant pink flowers for only a couple weeks. And Alpine Gold (Hulsea algida) stands out like a dazzling fragment of yellow sunshine along the Sierra crest.

Skypilot I was lucky enough one July day to hike onto the slopes of Mt. Gibbs in Yosemite National Park during an afternoon thunderstorm. Despite the heavy dark sky and gloomy prospects, I wanted to see the wildflowers on the only day I had free so I pushed myself up to the upper treeline. All effort was rewarded when the setting sun dipped below the lid of storm clouds and shot across the rain drenched slopes with dazzling brilliance. Every flower sparkled with radiant color and the effect was breathtaking.

But the alpine floral show contains many more discoveries than just flamboyant wildflowers. In the zone of wind and piercing cold found above treeline, all plants adapt by scrunching down close to the ground where botanists have to crawl around on their bellies with hand lenses to fully appreciate the diversity of life.

This is especially true on the Dana Plateau, one of the Sierra Nevada’s most famous nunataks, high rocky areas that remained ice free during the Pleistocene glaciation. On this single plateau the species diversity is so high that roughly half of all the alpine plants found in the Sierra Nevada can be found in a single location. And all of these plants are mere centimeters tall, forming a mat so dense that it’s hard to pick out separate species. It takes a practiced eye to spot the minute Ivesias (Ivesia shockleyi) or the marvelously tiny Snow Willows (Salix reticulata), but it’s nearly impossible to miss the Red Mountain Heathers (Phyllodoce breweri) and Alpine Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon alpinum) in their midst.

No matter where you hike in the High Sierra during the summer, some part of this fantastic floral show can be seen as you hike among the rocky boulders and scattered lush meadows. It is a wonderful reminder of California’s remarkable diversity that life can be so rich on the highest peaks in the state.

David Lukas, co-author of Sierra Nevada Natural History