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26 Jul 2013

Witnessing the Changes: Two Women Stop in Joshua Tree as Part of Climate-Adaptation Tour

Written by  Sarah Gilman
Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein. Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein.

There are all sorts of reasons to hit the highway this time of year. You might be trying to escape our recent extremes of desert heat, bound for cooler high country and the freezing plunge of alpine lakes, or bone-chilling swells along the Pacific Coast. Or, perhaps, you’re the sort whose perfect lark includes the world’s largest ball of twine or the International Banana Museum.

Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, had something different in mind when they embarked this June on their Great American Adaptation Road Trip. After earning master’s degrees in environmental policy, the young women hoped to see firsthand how people—from city planners to farmers to federal officials to neighbors—are adapting their lives and livelihoods to cope with climate change.

“We wanted to focus on what they’re doing to move past the conversation, that we find boring and not relevant, about whether climate change is actually happening or not,” says Goldstein.

Howard adds with a laugh: “And then, we really just wanted to go on a road trip.”

So it is that the pair is now looping the nation over three months, documenting various approaches and sharing them through written stories, videos, audio slideshows and more with the aim of getting the public engaged, spreading good ideas and helping inspire further innovations. (Here’s a map that shows where they’ve been and where they’re going.)

So far, they have stopped to check out everything from a solar power company on Long Island whose business is booming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to Georgian farmers who are adapting more-efficient irrigation methods to ride out expected increases in drought.

The Western leg of the Adaptation Road Trip is now under way. Goldstein and Howard visited Santa Fe, where they learned about the confluence of factors fueling today’s Southwestern megafires. They caught up with Bill Armstrong, who was the fuels specialist program manager for the Santa Fe National Forest back when Jodi Peterson wrote for HCN about federal efforts to allow fire back into ecosystems thrown out of whack by nearly a century of fire suppression.

“He showed us the stark landscapes where the Cerro Grande and Los Conchas fires burned,” and explained how prescribed burns and careful thinning projects might help keep some forests from being burned beyond recovery, says Howard. “But it was a pretty depressing message that he had. He thought that the Forest Service was not doing enough prescribed burning to make any difference in the future.”

After spending some time talking to North Fork Valley, Colo., farmers about how they’re coping with late spring frosts killing early-blooming fruit crops, Howard and Goldstein headed next to Aspen to learn about how climate is affecting snowpack. Then they moved on to Denver to explore how local water authorities are collaborating with federal officials to protect the forests that surround watersheds. Tucson, Ariz., was next—and last weekend, they passed through our area, stopping at Joshua Tree National Park.

“In Joshua Tree!” they posted on Facebook on Saturday, July 20. “Newest lesson from the Southwest: There is a reason why environmentalists are called tree-huggers and not cactus-huggers. But we love cacti too!”

They’re now heading up the West Coast and through Glacier National Park to learn how officials there communicate with visitors about the disappearance of the park’s storied glaciers, and ultimately back to Ann Arbor by the end of August.

Between the interviewing, driving, writing, editing and traveling in just about every conveyance imaginable—four-wheeler, canoe, boat, paddleboard (accompanied by dolphins)—and sampling dried shrimp (basically the arthropod equivalent of beef jerky) and other delicacies along the way, Howard admits the pair has been getting minimal sleep. But it is, she assures us, enough to drive safely on.

To follow their trip, check out their Great American Adaptation Road Trip blog.

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor of High Country News, from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

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