Weather Service's mission looking a little foggy lately

By Jayson Jacoby February 24, 2012 09:35 am

The government's weather forecasters have added the well-being of newborn calves and lambs to their list of worries, which seems to me an intolerable burden.

The prognosticators have quite enough pressure just with figuring out whether it's going to rain tomorrow.

I came across this latest curiosity in the fashion typical of our times — I was prowling about online, hoping to kick up something interesting.

(It's usually a short prowl, requiring the gentlest of kicks.)

As a dedicated weather observer (spousal translation: "obsessed") I naturally have among my browser's bookmarks the websites for the two nearest offices of the National Weather Service, those in Boise and Pendleton.

I visit the former more often, as its meteorologists do the forecasting for Baker County.

(Boise, of course, is in a different state, but the Weather Service heeds geopolitical boundaries no more than a blizzard does.)

But it was on the Pendleton home page where I discovered the Weather Service's new livestock-protection endeavor.

It's called "Cold Advisory for Newborn Livestock." Or, as expected given the governmental affinity for inscrutable acronyms, "CANL."

The basic idea is to alert ranchers when chilly weather poses a threat to just-dropped babies during lambing and calving season.

This is a valid enough task, I suppose.

But I wonder whether it's one the federal government ought to be taking on, what with the deficit and all.

Congress already lays out a considerable sum to aid in food production (or in some cases, non-production) through the Farm Bill.

Besides which, I've talked with quite a few ranchers over the years, and not a one has ever blamed the feds for a frozen calf.

Ranchers tend to get out in the weather pretty regularly anyway, so conditions that put newborns in peril aren't likely to go unnoticed.

The other peculiar thing I noticed about CANL is the partnership behind it.

The first partner is logical: the Weather Service office in Glasgow, Mont.

That city is in the northeastern part of Montana, a state known both for its livestock and its frigid winters. It got down to 22 below zero one day in January in Glasgow — cold enough to threaten all manner of mammals, and newborns in particular.

The second partner, though, seems misplaced: the University of Miami.

The one in Florida, not Ohio.

There's a lot of livestock in Florida, to be sure. The Sunshine state boasts a bigger cattle herd — 17.1 million head — than does Oregon, at 13 million.

(Montana, by the way, has 25 million.)

What Florida lacks, by and large, is a winter.

Oh sure, some orange groves get a tad frosty for a night or two every few years, resulting in breathless TV reports about how juice will soon fetch more per ounce than Dom Perignon.

For wee livestock, though, Florida is a veritable paradise.

Well, except for the occasional gator and the burgeoning population of pythons, the prodigy of pet store purchases gone terribly wrong.

A minor bit of sleuthing (Google, naturally) explains the apparent anomaly.

Miami — or as NFL players who attended the school invariably call it, "The U" — has quite a renowned meteorology program.

Undoubtedly the curriculum is not limited to local weather conditions.

This CANL thing, for now, is just an experiment.

The Weather Service will offer the advisory on selected offices' websites through May 31. Until then the agency will solicit comments from the public.

A notice on the Pendleton office's website reads: "Your feedback will help us determine product utility, if modifications are needed, and whether the product should become part of our operational suite."

As it happens, although I don't own any livestock, I do have a recommendation.

If the feds are sincere in their desire to protect lambs and calves I'd suggest they tinker a bit with the CANL concept.

Here's a couple ideas:

• Swap "cold" for "coyote."

• Or get rid of the "C" altogether and put in its place a "W."

For "wolf."

Most ranchers, I'd wager, worry more about wild canines than about ill-timed cold fronts.

 

. . .

 

I sometimes pine for a time machine.

Not so I can witness the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the Battle of Gettysburg or some other epochal event.

(Although I dearly wish I could have been at Abbey Road studios the day in 1966 when Paul McCartney laid down the bass track for "Taxman.")

Rather, I’d like to pass an afternoon chatting with a few of the first generation of miners who poked about in our local mountains.

But it’s not lost lodes I want to ask them about.

(Although, with gold going for $1,700 an ounce, I wouldn’t ignore any hints.)

It’s not even something purely prosaic, like a recipe for the kind of flaky, lard-based biscuits that were popular before anyone had ever inserted “saturated” in front of “fat.”

I want to talk to those argonauts about trails.

In particular, I want to tell them that the paths they blazed through the forests and up the creeks and over the ridges have, in some cases, not merely endured for the better part of a century and a half.

Today, certain of these routes have a political significance that their blazers, I suspect, could not have conceived.

This legacy has to do largely with a federal law passed the year after the Civil War ended. It was called Revised Statute 2477.

The law was superseded in 1976, but only partially.

The basic idea is that historic travel routes — in particular ones that predate the creation of the national forests or some other designation of public land — must remain open to the public regardless of subsequent government actions, such as delineating wilderness areas, which limited travel in some fashion.

Or, to cite a more proximate example, the impending unveiling of the Travel Management Plan for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, a decision that will prohibit motor vehicles on some roads that are open to such travel now.

RS 2477, for all its staying power, is fraught with uncertainties.

Perhaps the most important of these is that even when a road is formally designated as a public route under the statute (such designations are made by county commissioners), there's no guarantee that all modes of travel will remain legal.

This angers some people, who seem to think that RS 2477 was intended to make sure that every burro trail could grow up to become a paved highway.

But that's not logical.

There were no SUVs in the 19th century, after all.

No four-wheelers, either.

Still and all, I'm fascinated by the notion that a trail hacked through the Elkhorns by a miner in, say, 1863, might yet have its day in court, so to speak.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.