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Home arrow Opinion arrow Columns arrow Snow surveying, a 78-year tradition, nears the end

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Snow surveying, a 78-year tradition, nears the end


They’ve been measuring snow up at Anthony Lakes for almost as long as they’ve been skiing on it.

Not constantly, of course.

But still this is a considerable span.

For perspective, when the first snow survey was undertaken beneath the imposing granitic prow of Gunsight Mountain, pretty much nobody outside the U.S. Navy had heard of Pearl Harbor.

Hitler wasn’t exactly a household name, either.

Unless your household was in, say, Berlin or Munich.

I’m referring to 1936, to be specific.

That’s the first year, so far as the available records show, that employees from the federal agency then known as the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) trudged to a meadow just east of Anthony Lake and thrust a hollow pole into the snow.

The SCS was just a tot then, having been formed the previous year by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1994, under the auspices of another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, the agency was renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the handle by which it goes by today.

This was something of a belated change.

Despite being charged with conserving soil, the agency had long been interested in more than dirt.

Snow, for instance. Or, rather, its liquid byproduct.

It’s significant, I think, that within a year of its creation the SCS was dispatching people into the mountains to see how much water would flow into streams come spring and summer.

(Not that people in that Dust Bowl era didn’t recognize how vital water is to agriculture.)

Getting to Anthony was no small matter in 1936. There was no paved road, for one thing. No four-wheel drive SUVs, either.

Yet starting that year, and ever winter since, a survey crew made from three to five trips into the Elkhorns to have a look at the snowpack. Not even World War II interrupted this annual effort.

But this winter, the 78th, might be the last.

At least it will be the final winter in which the NRCS handles the chore.

Kevin Shaw, who works at the agency’s Baker City office, told me this week that officials have decided not to continue assigning employees to do local snow surveys after 2014.

This decision affects not only the Anthony Lake measuring site, but also five other survey courses in Baker County.

One of those — Dooley Mountain, just west of the highway summit — has been on the NRCS snow survey route almost as long as Anthony Lake, since 1939.

This saddens me.

It’s no tragedy, of course.

But since I started at the Herald more than 21 years ago I’ve written dozens of stories about snow surveys, and I’ve gone with the surveyors a few times. 

(The only instances, alas, when I’ve been paid to go snowshoeing.)

Snow surveying intrigues me in part because it has to do with the weather, long a fascination of mine, and partly because it is that rare endeavor which has changed little in more than three quarters of a century.

The task is as it has always been — plunge a hollow tube into the snow, measure the depth and then weigh the snow, which makes it possible, by a simple calculation, to determine the water content.

(Not simple for me, a mathematical simpleton, but simple for most people.)

In addition to being a venerable tradition, snow surveying in Baker County has created a valuable, and voluminous, larder of climate statistics.

It’s not valuable to everyone, of course.

But I appreciate being able to compare the current winter with one that predates the Korean War.

The NRCS decision to curtail snow surveys doesn’t mean Baker County will be left without snowpack data.

The agency’s network of Snotels — automated devices that measure snow and send the information daily by radio signals — will remain.

But although Snotels are well-distributed about the region, the oldest dates only to about 1980, so their historical value is considerably less than the records from Anthony Lakes, Dooley Mountain and other “manual” snow survey sites.

Shaw said NRCS won’t be scrapping its snow-measuring tubes, hanging scales and other equipment.

In fact, he said the agency would train volunteers who are willing to carry on the tradition.

“It is kind of sad,” Shaw said. “I really hope someone will step up and take over.”

I’m inclined to do so myself.

Trouble is I couldn’t say, as I used to, that I was working on a story.

And I doubt I could connive my employer to pick up the tab while I’m out playing in the snow.

. . .

Jim Smith knows what the biologists say about wolves in California.

But he’s not buying the official story.

The absence of wolves in our neighboring state to the south got into the news in a big way two years ago when a wolf from Oregon crossed the border.

The wolf, known as OR-7, has divided his time between the two states ever since.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, OR-7 was the first wolf to enter the state since 1924.

Smith, who moved to Baker County in 1998, contends that’s not true.

It was the spring of 1943.

Smith was 14, and living with his parents on a 680-acre ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Arnold, Calif., about 20 miles north of Sonora.

He was riding his bicycle along Highway 4 toward Arnold when he saw two gray wolves run onto the road.

Smith, who had grown up in the rural area where wildlife was plentiful, was convinced the animals were wolves rather than coyotes or dogs.

He said the two animals stood near the center of the highway for about 20 seconds, looking at him, before loping away, climbing the cutbank above the road and continuing into a patch of brush.

Smith told me his story recently.

He also brought a handwritten account in his journal in which he wrote that “many nights we could hear wolves howling in the area around the ranch.”

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald. 

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