Yellowstone National Park by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

Yellowstone National Park, known for its gravity defying geysers, colorful hot

springs, and the two tumbling waterfalls that carve out the grand canyon of

Yellowstone, is possibly our nation’s most iconic National Park. Unfortunately, its

fame cannot protect Yellowstone’s ecology from the increasingly present threats of

climate change.

Temperatures are increasing across the globe and the Yellowstone

area—mostly in Wyoming but spilling over into both Montana and Idaho—is not

immune. The Park has noticed an uptick in both average minimal and average

overall temperatures, particularly since 1980. Global climate models predict that by

the end of this century, the mean temperature in the greater Yellowstone area will

increase by 2.6-5.7 degrees Celsius.

A temperature increase of this magnitude will have profound effects on

Yellowstone’s ecology and could be disastrous for some of its foundational species:

the five needle pine trees. As temperatures rise they force the tree line to rise as

well, which decreases the amount of land this group of trees can grow on. These

trees play an essential role in the Yellowstone ecosystem, providing food and shelter

for animals from birds and chipmunks to the Yellowstone grizzly bear. In fact,

concern over the loss of range for the five needle pine trees prompted a judge to

restore the Endangered Species Act protection on the Yellowstone grizzly bear in


Precipitation patters are also changing in Yellowstone. While average

precipitation has seen a slight increase since 1900, its recently been falling earlier in

the year. In addition, the rising temperatures throughout the year mean less

snowfall to feed the rivers and streams that run through Yellowstone. These two

factors coupled together mean especially dry, hot summers—favorable conditions

for one of Yellowstone’s other famous features: fire.

Wildfire is a natural force in the western environments of the United States.

It serves as a renewing agent by clearing fields and forests of dead plant debris and

quickly returning those stored nutrients back to the soil. Many plants and animals

have evolved to coexist and even benefit from wildfires. Some grasses store their

nutrients in tubers under the ground so that the fire can’t scorch them, and once it

passes they simply sprout up again. Some species of evergreens drop cones that

only open after the extreme heat of a forest fire, ensuring that their seeds will be the

first to germinate in the freshly cleared ground.

However, with increasingly hot, dry summers, experts fear that Yellowstone

may see more fires like the ones of 1988. The fire raged for several months and

burned 793,000 acres: over one third of the Park. Even smaller fires that occurred

more frequently would have the power to radically change Yellowstone’s ecology.

As fires burn through forests they clear the way for new life to flourish, but only by

destroying the old. Yellowstone’s old growth forests could literally go up in smoke,

and the Park would be left with a completely different ecosystem based on newer,

younger forests.

The environmental problems that are currently facing Yellowstone and will

face Yellowstone in the future are the same problems that our entire country, and

our entire planet, will be facing shortly. Environmental change is coming at an

accelerated rate, and has been for some time now. In the coming years it will

become impossible to ignore, and in the years after that it may become impossible

to live with. We—as citizens of the world—need to change our habits and our way

of life if we want to avoid the total ecologic collapse that is almost surely coming

before the turn of the next century.

Glacier National Park by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

“While standing upon that peak overlooking the terrain above the rim wall, we got

the thrill of thrills, for there lay the glacier, shriveled and shrunken from its former size,

almost senile, with its back against the mountain walls to the east of it, putting up its last

fight for life. It was still what seemed to be a lusty giant, but it was dying, dying, dying,

every score of years as it receded, it was spewing at its mouth the accumulations buried

within its bosom for centuries.”  Albert Sperry wrote these thoughts down in his

notebook when he first laid eyes on Sperry Glacier—named for his uncle, Lyman

Sperry—in 1894.  With such dramatic imagery one would expect the glacier to be little

more than a sliver of ice desperately clinging to the mountains of Montana.  In reality,

what Sperry described was a 3,237,485 square foot glacier that wrapped around three

mountain peaks.  In 2009, Sperry Glacier was a mere 874,229 square meters; less than

two-thirds of the size witnessed by Albert Sperry when he bemoaned the glacier’s “dying,

dying, dying” condition over a century ago.

        Sperry Glacier is not facing a unique problem.  Glaciers shrinking from increased

temperature and decreased precipitation have been widely reported across the globe.  In

Glacier National Park, however, the problem is compounding.  The rise in

average temperature per year is two degrees Fahrenheit: twice that of the global average.  In the

years between 2000 and 2008, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization found that the

western Montana climate experienced on average eight days more of ninety plus degree

weather a year and eight days less of zero or minus zero degree weather.  These raised

temperatures increase the rate at which glaciers melt in the summer months, and decrease

the amount of snowfall that covers and replenishes the glaciers, effectively destroying the

icy giants that shaped the Rocky Mountains themselves. Only twenty-five of the one

hundred and fifty glaciers that existed in Glacier National Park in 1910 remain.

The Saturday of July 23 rd , Alexis and I spent our first day in Glacier driving the

fifty miles of the Going to the Sun Road. We settled on this activity mainly due to a lack

of parking; though we entered the Park a little after 10:00am, two of the three Visitor’s

Center’s parking lots in the Park were full. The last Visitor Center was at the other end

of Going to the Sun Road. The road was designed to be an experience in itself and

travels laterally across the Park roughly following the path of the sun: hence the name.

The road skirted around glacier formed and fed lakes and through a variety of forests as it

climbed and wound its way up and down the sides of the Rocky Mountains that make up

Glacier National Park. At times when we drove on the sides of mountains a steep rock

face would rise to one side of the road while on the other the ground perilously dropped

down thousands of feet into the valleys below. Water from melting snow and ice either

trickled down in gentle streams that stained the rocks dark or roared down in the form of

waterfalls that occasionally splashed onto our car as we drove underneath.

Snow and ice were still very present at the upper elevations of the Going to the

Sun Road, which opens in late June or early July due to snow that persists throughout the

spring months. Patches of snow and ice pepper the upper reaches of the Rocky

Mountains throughout the Park year-round, and occasionally condense into glaciers that

rest in alcoves or slopes that are shaded from the sun’s heat for most of the day. High

elevation lakes, colored with the brilliant blue hues of glacial melt water, are dotted with

small icebergs. Should you choose to cool off from a long hike up the mountain by going

for a swim, Alexis and I found that pieces of your hair will freeze solid for a minute or

two once you get out to dry off and warm up. The sensation of the water is literally

breathtaking, and it took us almost half an hour of hiking to lower, warmer elevations in

order to completely recover from the experience.

Much of our time in Glacier was spent hiking trails up and down the Rocky

Mountains. We sat in awe among colorful fields of wildflowers that poured down the

slopes of the mountains in a sea of green dotted with shades of yellow, white, purple, and

red. Small Columbian ground squirrels fearlessly rushed to shake our hands as we ate

lunch on mountain peaks, hoping to snag a tasty bite to snack on. In the evening elk,

bighorn sheep, and mountain goats came out to graze on the hillsides, completely

indifferent of their human spectators who stopped their cars in the middle of the road in

order to snap a picture. On one hike to Iceberg Lake, Alexis and I passed within five feet

of an adolescent grizzly bear that sat off the path contentedly munching on pine nuts,

barely even acknowledging our presence.

These experiences—while unique in the sense that no one experiences the exact

same thing—are shared by every person who witnesses and participates in the beauty of

Glacier National Park.

The loss of Glacier’s glaciers doesn’t just mean we lose something beautiful to

look at. During the summer months, glacier melt provides the water that fills the rivers

and streams that nourish the land below their lofty peaks. The amount of fish in the park

is dwindling due to the retreat of the glaciers and their life-giving waters. This disrupts

entire food systems, and particularly threatens one of the largest and healthiest grizzly

bear populations in in the lower forty-eight states as one of their key sources of protein

slowly but surely disappears.

National Parks are places of great natural sanctuary that protect unique

wildernesses that our nation has set aside with the intention for them to be unaltered by

man. In each Park we visit Alexis and I get a beautiful and unique look at the different

courses life takes on our planet, but a harrowing and disappointing reality check that our

goal to protect these great wildernesses is not being met. Many of our Parks stand on the

verge of great change—change brought about by the actions of humans. The problems

our Parks face will soon be our problems as well—if they cannot be considered our

problems already—but that is not to say there aren’t solutions.

National Parks across America, and indeed across the globe, are setting examples

of conservation and making headway in the fields of restoration. However, it will take

effort on the individual and the global scale to affect lasting change and ensure the

preservation of these precious natural resources.

Olympic National Park by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

Olympic National Park, located in the northwestern corner of Washington

State, is 922,651 acres of incredibly diverse land and water. The park contains three

distinct ecosystems—glacier capped mountains descend into lush, old-growth

temperate rain forests that finally yield to a roiling Pacific coast—which are all

interconnected by over 3,500 miles of glacier-fed streams and rivers. This multi-

tiered Park is made up of over 95% wilderness where twenty-four endemic plant

and animal species exist, meaning they live exclusively within Olympic National

Park’s boundaries.

Our first hike in Olympic was a grueling one. The Switchback Trail to

Klahanne Ridge took Alexis and myself two hours to complete. It was a 1500’ climb

in the space of 1.5 miles. The air was thin and as Alexis had pointed out to me days

before in Yosemite, the earth’s gravitational pull on things is actually stronger at this

altitude: 6050’ above sea level at our highest point. We marched

switchbacks—steep sections of trail that double back on themselves every fifteen to

thirty yards—up and down the mountain to get to and from the ridge. Alexis and I

were breathing heavily, our leg muscles were tired, and I, at least, was having

doubts about whether this trail was going to be worth it or not. When we finally

reached Klahanne Ridge and looked down into the basin that was encircled in steep

skyward reaching cliffs adorned with fields of snow, we were awestruck.

Alexis and I gazed down into the massive cirque—a semi-circular bowl

shaped valley—that opened up beneath us. The cirque had been carved into the

mountain by a glacier that had slowly flowed down its side for centuries, melting

into cracks in the rock then freezing and expanding, slowly carving a path down the

mountainside. Around us, steep skree slopes rose to meet the solid rock that jutted

skyward and made up the tops of the mountains. Below us, a lush valley forest of

evergreen trees periodically revealed itself as clouds slowly rolled up from the

valley towards us and then dissipated into thin air. While a field of snow about fifty

meters across resting on the slopes was quite a site for two southerners in mid July,

Alexis and I both knew it was nothing but a pitiful remnant compared to the glacier

that had once carved this valley.

In the past century or so, but particularly since the 80’s and increasingly

onward, Olympic National Park and many other sites around the world have been

experiencing glacier shrinkage. Olympic National Park’s glaciers are particularly

sensitive to climate change due to their low elevation and proximity to the coast; the

Park has lost eighty-two of its glaciers since 1980 and experienced a total loss of

34% of its previous glacial extent. Glaciers are excellent indicators of climate

change, and Blue Glacier in Olympic is one of the most studied glaciers in the world.

The Park’s main glacier receded 325’ between 1995 and 2006 that resulted a loss of

178’ of thickness at its terminus from 1987-2009.

High in the mountains the lakes and rivers that are first formed by the

glaciers are unthinkable shades of clear blue. They calmly ripple in the slight

breezes that penetrate the mountainous walls that surround them. The color is a

result of incredibly fine sediments suspended in the water that are created by the

glaciers as they slowly grind down the mountains they reside on. These tiny

particles are carried down into the lakes and rivers with the glacial melt, and absorb

every color of light except for the radiant shades of blue. Recently hikers to these

high altitude lakes have noticed a dimming in their spectacular colors. This is due to

the fact that as the glaciers slowly disappear they stop grinding the fine sediments

into the water. As a result the lakes are losing their dramatic colors.

The disappearance of glaciers in the Olympic peninsula would have dramatic

effects on the ecosystems below them. While the peninsula is known for its rainfall,

the summers, like much of the west coast, can be quite dry. This will pose a problem

once the glaciers are gone. Glacier and snow melt feed the 3500 miles of rivers,

lakes, and streams in Olympic during the summer months when their fresh water

isn’t locked away as ice.

The loss of these rivers and lakes will have a profound effect on some of the

largest salmon spawning grounds and bull trout habitats in the lower forty-eight

states. Six different species of Pacific salmon use the peninsula’s rivers as spawning

grounds. After three years at sea, mature salmon battle their way upstream through

the currents of the exact rivers they were born in with the singular purpose of laying

and fertilizing their eggs before their death. Without water provided by glacier and

snow melt, the rivers, and the salmon, will disappear.

The annual salmon migrations also play a key role in nourishing much of the

Park’s wildlife. Apex predators such as black bears and bald eagles consume

salmon, while their fry—the newborn salmon that spend a year in growing in the

rivers before their journey to the Pacific—nourish predatory insects, amphibians,

and larger fish.

Air and water quality are also a concern for Olympic National Park. Chemical

and metal particles blow on Pacific winds from heavily industrialized countries in

Asia such as China. Trace amounts of mercury and pesticides are being deposited in

Olympic’s lakes and rivers and can accumulate to dangerous levels in the bodies of

fish and other marine life. Local mining and the increase in park traffic and urban

sprawl in areas around the park are also creating a growing ozone concern.

While Olympic National Park is facing several pressing threats from climate

change and urban encroachment that desperately need solutions, the Park has also

been a model for solving problems that face many other National and State Parks.

Fishers, small mammals that resemble ferrets, were hunted to near extinction in the

Olympic Peninsula over a century ago by trappers who relished them for their dark

coats. In addition to over trapping, habitat fragmentation as Washington State

developed led to their endangered status in 1998.

Seeking to restore fishers to a protected habitat within Washington, Olympic

National Park released twelve fishers from British Columbia into the Park in 2008.

Over the next three years, seventy-eight more were released into Olympic’s

wilderness. Each fisher was equipped with a radio transmitter that monitored the

animal’s movements, survival rate, and reproduction rate. After several years most

of the transmitters ran out of power or fell off, but the Park staff continued to

monitor the animals using hair snares. Baited with chicken and lined with rough

wire, the snares would allow fishers to scurry in and out retrieving their morsel of

chicken without harm. All that would be left behind were tufts of fur. Biologists

could then analyze the DNA in the fur to track which fishers were where in the Park.

The reintegration program saw wild success; fishers repopulated the peninsula

quickly and found territory both within and beyond Olympic’s protected borders.

Olympic National Park was also the site of a major dam removal project; it

was the first and largest of its kind attempted in a National Park. The Elwha Dam

and the Glines Canyon Dam were placed in the Elwha River nearly a century ago,

and have been disrupting the ecosystem of the river and its estuary ever since. The

dams blocked just over ninety miles of river, preventing Pacific salmon from

traveling up stream to their spawning grounds. In addition to choking the river the

dams had caused significant damage to the estuary at the mouth of the Elwha River

where it meets the Pacific by trapping over nineteen million cubic meters of

sediment, nutrients, and wood.

Dam removal began September 19 th , 2011, and was completed in August of

2014. The mouth of the Elwha rose over 10’, and the tremendous amount of

trapped sediment flowed out into the Pacific. The nearshore environment began a

drastic turnaround. As locked up sediments, nutrients, and wood flowed out to the

ocean the habitat began to rebuild almost instantly. Within weeks, salmon, herring,

and smelt returned to the waters near the mouth of the Elwha River, and with them

the sea bird and sea mammal population. A sand beach is also developing, replacing

the rounded cobbles and providing a habitat for Dungeness crabs and clams. The

only negative impact witnessed was the burial of a small kelp bed that had arisen

thanks to the starved estuary, but overall the impacts have been promising and


While Olympic National Park is making progress on preserving, restoring,

and maintaining its unique environments, there are still factors threating the park

that are out of its control alone. Rising temperatures threaten to melt its life

supporting glaciers. An ever-increasing presence of air pollution brings heavy

metals, ozone, and toxins into the Park on the winds that also bring its famed rains.

Our National Parks, while doing everything they can to preserve their environments

locally, need change on a global scale in order to maintain their breathtaking

ecosystems for the generations to come.

Redwood National Park by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

In the northwestern corner of California, Alexis and I entered a land of

slumbering giants. Redwood National Park, encompassing 131,983 acres and three state

parks, was founded October 2 nd , 1968 and is home to the tallest living things on the

planet: redwood trees. While the tallest tree in the world used to grace the majority of the

Pacific Coast of North America, reaching heights of 380’ and ages of over 2000 years,

old growth forests can now only be found on the northern coast of California and along

the coasts of Oregon: only 5% of the original redwood forests.

In the morning, and occasionally into the afternoon on a cooler day, the fog that

rolls off the Pacific Ocean into the groves of redwoods gives them an unearthly feeling.

Beams of sunlight filter through branches hundreds of feet above the ground reflecting

off of the fine water droplets that hang suspended in the still air. Moss hangs in clumps

like damp green hair from the branches of smaller trees, and bugs that light up in golden

halos drift lazily between the plants.

As Alexis and I walked through these groves, it was hard to imagine these

massive trees covering huge tracts of land; they seemed surreal. Stout Grove is a

collection of old growth redwoods that stand near a creek that is prone to flooding. These

floods inhibit the growth of new trees in the grove and the result is a collection of

tremendous redwood trees standing tall together in solidarity. Silence grips you upon

entering the grove and is only broken by the occasional warning cry of seabirds that make

their nests in the high branches of the trees. The ground the redwoods ascend from is

covered in four-foot tall ferns that create a gently waving green carpet if viewed from

above, and a damp jungle of undergrowth if waded through on foot. The ferns grow in

the rich topsoil that the redwoods maintain. Much of it is comprised of needles fallen

from the high up branches, and the widespread roots of the trees also help keep the soil

moist year round.

When the giants themselves do tumble—which can happen naturally due to

lightning strikes or rot caused by fungal infections—the trees return tremendous amounts

of nutrients that they’ve kept suspended hundreds of feet above the ground back to the

soil as they decompose. These trees lay like massive elevated paths that crisscross

through the undergrowth of ferns and other small trees. As they slowly begin to break

down, plants begin to take root on their massive, nutrient rich bodies. The plants start

small—some moss here, a fern or six there—but soon saplings begin to sprout from the

logs, and not just redwoods. Oaks, Alders, Sumacs, and other pine trees can grow out of

these fallen behemoths as long as their seeds fall in the right place. These dead redwoods

become nurse logs that give life to newer generations of trees.

Ninety-five percent of American redwoods have been logged for the properties of

its wood: soft, termite and rot resistant, and non-warping. The scars the logging industry

left in the redwood groves can still be seen today, and will take at least fifty more years to

disappear completely, even with the park actively working to erase them. Massive

stumps, that still stand between five and ten feet from the ground—and sometimes more

than twelve feet wide—are scattered throughout the groves as aging reminders of

America’s early stances on environmental policies. Decaying logging roads crisscross

the lush slopes of the park where today you can find bulldozers and excavators working

to clear streams choked by road fill and logging debris, reestablish the natural watershed

of the slopes, and erase the patchwork connection of roads that zigzag across the land.

New redwood trees are also being planted in the prairies and clearings where they once

stood tall in what some are calling the Redwood Renaissance. It will take 250 years for

these trees to even reach a moderate size, but we have to begin somewhere.

To grow so large, Redwoods need an abundant source of water, and rely on

frequent rains year round to supply it; if they get an adequate amount, they can grow 2’-

3’ per year, making them the fastest growing conifer in the world. The massive

redwoods are able to manufacture their own rain, in a way, buy trapping the iconic fog

that rolls off of the Pacific Ocean and onto mainland California in their branches. This

accounts for 25%-40% of the moisture they absorb, because the redwoods are actually

able to absorb moisture through both their root systems and their leaves: the first plants

discovered to be able to do so. The fog also contains necessary nutrients such as nitrogen

and phosphorous that the tree’s shallow root systems can’t reach in the soil. In addition

to being a supplementary nutrient source, the fog regulates the temperature in the

redwood forests providing the temperate climate that is vital to the redwood’s survival; if

it gets too hot the trees can dehydrate, and if the temperature drops too far a frost snap

could kill the trees. That fog is beginning to disappear, however, and with it the

redwood’s water supply. In 2010, fog levels in the redwoods were down 30% from the

1950s. 385 miles south, Los Angeles’ coastal fog had dropped 63% since the 1950s. The

culprits, in addition to slowly warming temperatures worldwide, are the coastal cities


The urban heat-island effect is a term that refers to a city’s ambient temperature

being much higher than surrounding rural temperatures due to the heat that is produced

and trapped by the asphalt, concrete, and metal that make up the majority of an urban

environment. This effect is particularly prevalent during night hours, as heat from the

sun is stored much longer in these materials than those of a more natural rural

environment. As urban centers continue to expand along the coast of California and

Oregon, they continue to reduce the amount of vital fog that is afforded to the redwood


While the effort to plant more redwoods and the work being done to restore

their forests to their natural state is valuable to the species’ survival, the work will

ultimately be in vain if the Pacific fog that keeps the trees alive disappears.

Redwoods are already beginning to die off in the southern reaches of their

territories, and while some surveys show that they may be beginning to extend their

territory northward, it won’t be in time to save the species from the habitat they’ll

have lost. City growth around the redwood’s habitat needs to be limited, or we

could lose the tallest living things on earth forever.

Yosemite National Park by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

First placed under protection in 1864, Yosemite National Park is one of the oldest

National Parks in existence, and its 747,956 acres encompass a vastly different ecosystem

than the Mojave Desert of Joshua Tree: the High Sierra. At its western entrance,

Yosemite is around 5000’ above sea level. At the eastern end, it’s nearly 10,000’ above

sea level. Traveling along the Tioga Road, which runs along the side of the mountains

above the Yosemite Valley and spans the width of the park, you can make the 5000’

climb, and witness the Sierra ecosystem’s transition from the ninety degree valleys of the

west to the year round snow capped mountains of the east. Along this fifty-six mile

stretch of road, you would be able to see environments similar to the ones you would see

if you travelled through the western coastal states from Mexico to Canada.

When Alexis and I first entered the park I was concerned; the road leading into

Yosemite was lined with the bare white skeletons of dead pine trees whose trunks

stretched skywards, but whose bare wilted branches reached down towards the earth like

so many clawed hands. Once inside the park, the first two miles of road were

accompanied by the charred trunks of trees and piles of blackened cinders bore testament

to the fires that burn in Yosemite throughout the summer months.

I soon found out there was no need to be concerned over the fire damage, as

wildfires play an essential role in the Yosemite ecosystem. The dying pine trees,

however, are a result of California’s fifth consecutive year of severe drought. Normally,

the drought itself wouldn’t be enough to kill off such large numbers of evergreens—over

29 million by conservative 2015 estimates—but the drought weakens the trees enough for

bark beetles to fatally infect them. The beetles bore into the bark of the pines and lay

their eggs, which hatch into larva that eat the cambium layer of the tree: the system that

transports vital nutrients throughout the entire plant.

The bark beetles are a natural part of California’s environment, and have been

around for centuries. Healthy trees are able to repel the beetles by producing pitch that

forces the beetles out of the holes they dig in the bark. Drought starved trees, however,

cannot produce this essential defense mechanism, and lose the battle to the bark beetle

every time. The bark beetle epidemic is not just affecting the evergreens of Yosemite, of

course, but those of the entire state of California. The beetle problem also appears as

though it will only get worse, as the drought shows no signs of ending, and with each

passing season the trees grow weaker.

Yosemite, which is about the size of Rhode Island, is home to over 400 species of

animals—some newly discovered and thought only to exist in the Yosemite

ecosystem—and over 1000 plant species. Unfortunately, some of these plant species are

being put at risk—by other plants. “On a global basis…the two great destroyers of

biodiversity are, first habitat destruction and, second, invasion by exotic species,” wrote

E. O. Wilson, a Harvard ecologist. His assertion rings true in Yosemite. Invasive plant

species are one of the largest threats to Yosemite’s biodiversity, and they arrive in the

park hidden on the socks, shoelaces, tires, and pet fur of the more than four million

visitors that make the pilgrimage to Yosemite annually.

The introduction of new plant life that aggressively replaces indigenous plant

life—the yellow star thistle is a prime example—has the potential to disrupt entire

ecosystems. Many insect species are highly specialized in their choice of food and

habitat, and if a spikey yellow flower overruns their particular food source or habitat we

could potentially be saying goodbye to an entire species of insect.

The Himalayan blackberry is another example of a plant that has run rampant

through the forests of Yosemite. The bush itself grows in thick, spikey brambles that can

obscure natural animal paths and choke out ground plants. Not everything in Yosemite

dislikes the bush however; black bears and park visitors alike are attracted to the

succulent berries that grow on the branches. Unfortunately, the blackberry’s preferred

habitat is the Yosemite Valley: the central hub of human activity in the park. This vastly

increases human and bear interaction, which puts both the bears and the park visitors at


Invasive plant species can also alter one of Yosemite’s most spontaneous and

essential environmental regulators: fire. Aggressively invasive species can cover vast

tracts of terrain, and can alter the pace, frequency, and intensity of the wildfires that bring

fresh slates of land to Yosemite. Fires play an integral role in the park’s ecosystem. The

giant sequoias in particular depend on the wildfires to clear out the organic litter on the

forest floor in order for their seeds to germinate. The giant sequoias grow in three

secluded groves in Yosemite and are only found in groves scattered along the western

slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The largest living things on earth by volume, the

giant sequoias once shared the earth with the dinosaurs. Now, they can be found in less

than seventy sparsely populated groves along the western coast of the United States.

To combat the problem of invasive plant species, Yosemite has its own Invasive

Plant Management Program that follows the tested principles of integrated pest

management. They work to prevent new invasions, eradicate existing infestations,

preserve native plant species, and implement the most appropriate control techniques for

each invasive plant species. The program has come a long way from civilian volunteers

who pulled bull thistle and Klamath weed by hand out of the endless fields of

wildflowers that stretch across Yosemite’s valley.

On a brisk Sunday morning in the middle of our stay at Yosemite, Alexis and I

rose at 3:30 in the morning to set out for Tunnel View to witness a sunrise in

Yosemite. When we arrived around 5:00am, more than half a dozen photographers

had already set their cameras up on their tripods and had staked out their spot for

the morning glory. By 5:45am, when beams of sunlight began to streak over the

crests of the mountains that surround the valley, there were more than two dozen

people pressed against the wall that kept them from falling down the mountain.

They watched silently as the cameras around them whirred and clicked, capturing

the Ultralight Beam that lit up the clouds—which crept slowly over the

mountaintops—in spectacular shades of gold.

As the light from the sun grew brighter, Alexis and I descended into the

valley amidst the gentle, far off roaring of the three major waterfalls that cascaded

down the mountainsides and fed the valley’s river. In midday the valley is packed

with visitors, but at this early hour of dawn Alexis and I could have been the only

people who had ever been there. Walking through a dew-laden field, we spotted

two stags calmly grazing on the tall wet grass. Their antlers were still covered in

velvet, which glowed softly in the morning light. Naturally, as curiosity and

anticipation will always drive us to do, we slowly inched closer as Alexis clicked

away on her camera catching their every move. To our surprise, the deer didn’t

seem to mind our approach at all. They occasionally regarded us with inquisitive

looks, but contentedly continued to munch on their breakfast. Careful not to

frighten them, Alexis and I mouthed exaggerated phrases to each other such as “Oh

my God!” and “This is amazing!” or “I can’t believe this!” We walked through the

field with the pair of deer for half an hour as the sun slowly rose and brightened

Yosemite Valley, sometimes coming close enough to touch them—but never doing


It was perhaps a once in a lifetime moment, to be so close to something so

natural and wild, and experiencing it was breathtaking. These are the kind of

experiences that our National Parks provide their visitors every single day. Our

parks deepen our appreciation for nature and give us a chance to experience the

world as it once was: untouched by man. The National Parks are precious resources

that once lost, can never be replaced. It is our responsibility, as a national and

global community, to preserve these natural sanctuaries for the generations to

come, so that they too may experience a radiant unpolluted sunrise, or sit breathless

as they watch a normally skittish wild animal simply live its life just feet away from


Joshua Tree National Park by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

After three days of driving across the country, in which Alexis and I completed

one novel, listened to almost the entirety of our music libraries, and exhausted our data

for the month, we arrived at our first destination: Joshua Tree National Park, in southern

California. After arriving at our motel, which my sister was surprised to find contained a

mini fridge—apparently Greek hotels don’t provide such basic amenities—we drove out

for our first evening in the park.

Joshua Tree National Park, though relatively young—established Halloween of

1994—encompasses 794,000 acres and two distinct desert ecosystems in southern

California. The lower, dryer, Colorado Desert has been home to Native Americans,

western gold miners, and homesteaders alike. The more elevated, wetter Mojave

Desert—beginning around 3000’ above sea level—is currently home to the park’s

namesake: the Joshua Tree. Typically ranging from 15’-40’ tall with an average lifespan

on 150 years, this awkwardly branched, spindly, spikey tree can reach 90’ tall, and the

oldest tree is estimated to be over 1000 years old.

The sandy road that led southwest from the town of Joshua Tree up to the West

Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park wound between the crumbling remnants of the

Little San Bernardino Mountains, which loomed out of the desert on either side of us.

The sun had begun its decent as we drove into the park, and gave the naturally sand

colored rocks a rosy hue. On either side of us short bushes and desert scrub plants

sprouted from the sand. Among them, standing taller than everything except the large

piles of boulders that rose from the sands, were the park’s namesakes: the Joshua trees.

At the entrance of the park they were small, standing no more than ten feet high and

sprouting green and yellow leaves near the ends of their branches that looked like a

bushel of wide pine needles. The further we travelled into the park, however, the larger

they grew. They had no uniformity to their shape. Some grew straight into the air, only

branching out once or twice near the top of their twenty-foot trunks. Others branched

apart abundantly and early, creating a mass of tangled spiny limbs that began not four

feet from the ground.

Found exclusively in the Mojave Desert, the Joshua tree (yucca brevifolia) is

pollinated solely by the Yucca moth, whose larva use some of the tree’s pollinated seeds

as food, while the rest are scattered to the sands by wind and small mammals. In order to

flower, however, Joshua trees need to undergo a dormant period during cold weather.

Unfortunately, due to rising temperatures and frequent drought across the southwestern

United States, these necessary cold periods and wet seasons are becoming more and more

scarce, and effective blooming periods for the Joshua tree’s flowers are beginning to

become few and far between. According to ecologist Jim Cornett, 2013 was an explosive

blooming period for the trees, the likes of which he hasn’t seen since he began studying

them in 1988. He hypothesized that this was a desperate attempt at pollination on the

part of the Joshua trees due to the two years of drought that came prior.

For those lucky seeds that are pollinated and dispersed, germination is just the

beginning of their struggle in the arid Mojave climate. Joshua trees aren’t really trees at

all; they’re succulents, a class of plant that stores water—similar to a cactus. It’s quite a

handy trait to have in a climate that gets barely more than a quarter inch of rain per month

and whose ground temperatures can reach upwards of 180 degrees during summer

months. However, young Joshua trees don’t have the extensive root network and water

storing capabilities of adult plants, and are therefore much less likely to survive

particularly hot, dry years. It doesn’t help that the tree only grows about 2” to 3” per

year, and can take between fifty and sixty years to mature. Cornett has noticed “almost

no replacement of old individuals by younger trees… We haven't had a new, young

Joshua tree emerge on our Wickenburg study site in almost 30 years, and there have been

a number of trees that have died… They're just not getting the kind of environmental

conditions that they require to survive.”

The alarming disappearance of the Joshua tree doesn’t only mean the loss of

another bizarre looking cactus. While at first glance a desert ecosystem may seem a

barren wasteland, in reality it is teeming with life. The loss of the Joshua tree would also

mean the eradication of the Yucca Moth, whose larva feed on the seeds of the trees.

Twenty-five desert bird species would lose places to roost. Small mammals—including

the scores of mice that dart across the road at night at the sight of headlights causing

panic in less calm drivers—and reptiles that sought the plant out for shelter and food

would starve and become easy pray for vultures and eagles. Eventually, a once beautiful

and fragile ecosystem will collapse, all because rising temperatures—a direct result of

increased greenhouse gasses—prevented mature Joshua trees from flowering, and young

Joshua trees from surviving.

In addition to the effects that global climate change has on the park, local urban

encroachment is also putting Joshua Tree’s animal and plant residents at risk. One

evening Alexis and I travelled out to Key View, a spot famous for providing the backdrop

of dazzling night sky photography near the southwestern border of the Park. When we

arrived, however, it wasn’t the twinkling lights of stars that I first noticed, but those of

the city of Twentynine Palms, nestled in a valley only six miles from where we were

standing. In pitch darkness, the human eye can detect the light of a struck match from

two miles away. Alexis and I were looking down at a city of more than 26,000 people.

The light from the city made viewing the viewing the Milky Way difficult, and we had to

recede further back into the park in order to capture it with a camera.

Lights from cities aren’t only hurting photographers, however. Desert ecosystems

are home to a large population of nocturnal animals who become active at night rather

than in the day in order to avoid the extreme temperatures brought about by the sun in a

cloudless sky. As city lights grow brighter and closer, they begin to disturb the day-to-

day cycles of bats, mice, and other small mammals. They reduce the range of these

animal’s habitats, driving them further from the city lights and concentrating them

towards the center of the park.

Joshua Tree National Park is a place of sweeping landscapes, of tremendous

sunsets that stretch across entire horizons, and is a world teeming with life, if one only

looks for it. Many people would expect a desert ecosystem to be fairly resistant to

change, but in reality, they are some of the more fragile ecosystems on the planet as they

exist in such extremes.

One of my favorite things about Joshua Tree National Park is the freedom that it

affords its visitors. Nothing captured that sense of freedom for me more than when, on

our first evening after thirteen hours of driving—and more than a few frustrated

exclamations of road rage from myself—Alexis spotted a pile of boulders thirty yards

from the road, pulled over, and asked me, “Hey, do you want to climb those?” I definitely

did. In the fading light of the day, without hesitation or question, Alexis and I climbed to

the top of the pile of boulders. I sat at the peak and watched streams of white headlights

and red break lights wind their way towards the exit of the park, and deeper into the

desert, respectively. Joshua Tree never closes, allowing guests to witness its wonders in

both the day and the night.

A place of such beauty is in danger, and in need of our protection—especially

since we’re creating the threats. Being labeled as a National Park isn’t enough to

protect these ecosystems anymore; we need to change our behavior on a

national—if not global—level if we want to protect these beautiful lands for future

generations to experience and learn from.

Intro by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

Most people who have received a public education in the United States have

known the words of Katherine Lee Bates’ opening stanza of “America the Beautiful”

since they were seven or eight years old. The spacious skies, purple mountains, and

countless other breathtaking scenes filling our country’s wilderness which inspired poets

like Bates, explorers like Lewis and Clark, and leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, are

all supposedly preserved in our National Parks—in addition to the diverse flora and fauna

who, like us, make America their home. These protected lands, however, are rapidly

becoming the last sanctuaries for many species of plants and animals. While the National

Park lands are protected by law from developers and companies that would seek to

augment their ecosystems by dumping waste, the Parks are facing increasing danger from

global climate change, urban encroachment, and human traffic. If something is not done

to protect the land from these new, ever escalating threats, the scenes described in

“America the Beautiful” might only exist in the imagination, as they may be lost forever.

My sister, Alexis, and myself (Adam) are spending forty days this summer

travelling by car from North Carolina across the western United States to explore

seven National Parks—Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Redwood, Olympic, Glacier,

Yellowstone, and Zion—and research the effects being brought about by climate

change in the protected park ecosystems. We’re supported in part by the

Froelich Honors Fellowship which is funded by the University of North

Carolina at Chapel Hill.

While our findings may not be reassuring, we hope that our research will be

able to raise awareness for the danger that these protected ecosystems are facing,

and can ultimately be a part of the effort to affect lasting change that preserves our

entire planet’s wellbeing.

My Mother Always Told Me I Ate Too Much Greece-y Food by Alexis Fairbanks

Before I left for Greece I told myself I was going to start a travel blog.  I had big plans: pictures, words, more pictures.  But alas, I spent all of my time in Greece climbing things I wasn't supposed to climb, jumping off of things I wasn't supposed to jump off of, and eating copious amounts of souvlaki and gelato.  I regret nothing.  But now that I'm back and have a whopping three hours of spare time, I thought I'd make the dream a reality.  I'm not one for words, photography can do a much better job than I ever could, but before you jump straight to the photo gallery stick around so I can tell you about the next big adventure.  Tomorrow (July 1st) my brother Adam and I leave for a six week investigative journalism project studying climate change in the national parks.  We'll be visiting seven parks: Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Redwood, Olympic, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Zion.  As far as this travel blog goes, I'll stick to what I'm good at: photography.  You'll be happy to hear that Adam the creative writing major will be handling the words.  Check back here every once in a while to read about our discoveries, look at some (hopefully) pretty neat photos, and follow along with our sibling shenanigans.  But for now, enjoy photos from the past month in Greece.