The Los Angeles Times is quite literally not what it used to be.
Just five years ago it employed a thousand or more editors and writers; now it's down to about 600, according to former staffer Kevin Roderick's LA Observed. The daily paper weighs about half, often less, of its older, richer self.
One can only hope that the savings in trees not pulped will someday be made up on the all-powerful electron stream known as the Internet, although early prospects are not encouraging.
Nonetheless, the LA Times is still by far the biggest reporting outlet on the West Coast, and still publishes excellent stories, as it did this week with Joe Mozingo's All He's Saying is Give Brush a Chance, about a naturalist named Richard Halsey and his crusade to save Southern California chaparral.
As the story puts it:
Chaparral, [Halsey] says, does not need to burn to the ground every 30 years
to remain healthy. Just the opposite. Too much fire will eventually
decimate the native flora — some of the most diverse in the nation —
leaving a biological wasteland of invasive weeds.
Many people might not know the difference, viewing chaparral as a brown, dead thicket of thorns and brush.
But with the help of top botanists and fire ecologists, Halsey is on a
campaign to correct the record about California's most widespread,
misunderstood and maligned type of vegetation.
In doing so, he hopes to limit brush clearance plans to the edges of suburbia, away from the backcountry.
I think a big part of the confusion is rooted in a couple of English words that are used as conversational shorthand, but which carry more baggage than speakers may realize. Those words are "supposed to" and "meant to" (as in, chaparral is "supposed to" burn). These words imply predestination, and that concept is backed up by the fact that many species of chaparral, such as manzanita and chamise, require the searing temperatures of fire to open seeds and begin again.
Even worse, biologists have extended this concept into the scientific literature, arguing that plants a few decades old are "senescent" or even "decadent," despite being in perfect health, and capable of living for many decades more. Chaparral is no more predestined to burn after ten or twenty years than redwood trees are predestined to be cut down by loggers after 500 or a 1000 years…it's just worked out that way all too often in California history.
Halsey…likes to point out the absurdity of this ["elderly brush"] theory…by simply calling the plants "senile," as if the manzanita were in
an advanced state of dementia.
Halsey further makes the point by talking of "old growth" chaparral, as in the manzanita picture below. As the story says, he is a "quirky" — that is, unexpectedly open — guy.
Once I saw him speak at a conference of fire managers in his neck of the woods, San Diego. He happened to say that he had been working closely with firefighters, and admired them, and had learned a lot from them. When he took questions, I asked him what he had learned — curious to hear what a naturalist would take away from the difficult and dangerous work of battlng wildland fires.
The question stumped him. He admitted he couldn't think of an example, at least not at that moment. Rarely do you see that kind of honesty in an advocate of any sort. Halsey's institute calls itself the voice of the chaparral. Long may it speak out for California's forgotten lands.