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Never ceasing to be amazed

Alan Braunholtz

Nature never ceases to amaze me. This applies whether it’s an urban garden or the hallowed ground of an old-growth forest. The physical scale and increasing rarity of truly wild places do give them a bit of a leg up in the jaw-dropping department. But if you look hard enough it all can.At the moment I’m watching a variety of hummingbirds flit around the feeder on the back deck. Their aerobatic skills and ever-changing territorial squabbles, depending on number and type of birds, make for a pleasantly distracting view. More than four and they’ll give up on chasing each other off, and start sharing.Add in some knowledge of their lifestyle, migrations and physical adaptations, and these buzzing balls of feathers elicit feelings of reverence and perfection in me. When wintering in Mexico they double in weight, going from 3 grams to 6, by gorging on insects and nectar. When they leave on their migration north, they can barely fly. Most fly up the Gulf Coast, but some ruby throated ones bound for the East Coast of the USA take a short cut across the gulf from the Yucatan to Florida, a journey of 500 miles and 20-plus hours. If they’re lucky, they consume a few gnats on the way and land at a trim 3 grams. Their erratic flight and high-pitched whine around a feeder belies what efficient flying machines they really are. Hummingbirds are passerines, a type of bird known for having a very high metabolic rate. The mitochondria in their muscles have densely folded inner membranes, cristae, which makes them twice as efficient as ours and 35 percent of their muscle mass is mitochondria. With this high metabolic rate, it needs a lot of oxygen and its flying pectoral muscles are red meat, high in the oxygen carrying protein myoglobin. When active they are hot, which helps their metabolic reactions proceed faster and more efficiently, like any chemical reaction. A hummingbird uses its energy more efficiently than we do walking.Constantly active, they consume about two to three times their own weight a day and their feeding habits help here too. They’re not fussy about flowers and don’t waste time looking for any particular one. Their tongue is a fringed affair that draws the nectar up by capillary action, no sucking required, and they’ll eat insects. Cold, snowy days appear to have little effect – if they have enough food – as they’re like little flying light bulbs. At night they fall into a state of torpor with their body temperature dropping from 40 degrees celsius to 10 degrees, and it takes them about an hour to warm up each morning. Layer upon layer of this tiny bird is perfect in ways I couldn’t imagine.I get the same feelings when watching nature documentaries on DVD. Recently one on life in the oceans (“Blue Planet,” available at the Vail Library) instilled what I can only describe as a spiritual experience. Not bad for a non-religious person. I don’t think I’m unique in this. Many friends describe wilderness trips in terms beyond aesthetic awe, more so than any man-made work of art or building.The interesting aspect of the DVD is that I know I’ll never dive under the Antarctic to watch emperor penguins launch themselves, missiles of blubber, onto the ice, but it doesn’t matter. For me it’s enough to know that they’re there. Programs on dinosaurs, while interesting, lack the thrill of a blue whale’s enormous tail. Dinosaurs aren’t a part of my world.

This, too, seems to be a common feeling. Wilderness preservation enjoys support much broader than just the people who actually visit it. This is something critics of conservation efforts, like the Bair Ranch easement, can’t quite grasp. Bair Ranch may not be virgin wilderness, but it sure beats another Cordillera, Mountain Star or Bachelor Gulch. Hopefully, it can act as a refuge and reservoir for some of the wildlife down at that end of the valley.The people arguing against Bair Ranch aren’t stupid, so their ignorance of what a conservation easement is must be contrived so they can throw up the red herring of “no public access.” A conservation easement only buys the development rights, not the land itself. From what I’ve read, much of the money will go to buying out one brother so the land can remain as one undeveloped parcel. The place will still have to make a go of it as some sort of ranch. The value of the easement is that this land can’t become one more gated mansion-golf course community. “Gated community” seems an oxymoron and isn’t exactly welcoming to public access, either.If we’re that worried about public access, how about some attention to landowners who are fencing across rivers and generally trying to extend their exclusive rights to rivers the public used to float? Or support attempts to get grazing permits on public land to include public access easements to these lands. Some blocks of public land have no reasonable access. These lands essentially become the private enclaves of the landowners who surround them. Private land holdings are entitled to reasonable access across public or private lands, but the reverse doesn’t apply.The open space tax is one of the few examples of our community planning ahead to preserve our future quality of life instead of the shortsighted “what’s in it for me, now” type viewpoint favored by our cut-and-run society. In short it smacks of altruistic social engineering and not the free market. It’s also a tax, so must be wrong. Strangely, tax breaks and subsidies that support sprawling development aren’t seen in this light.Still all the controversy is raising the profile and knowledge of conservation easements. It can only be a good thing if more landowners see this as a chance to enhance their lifestyle without selling the farm. There might even be some competition for the dollars available, a great incentive to keep their land valuable from a scenic, air and water quality and wildlife habitat point of view. These happen to be four of the top six reasons why people live here, according to the recent Northwest Colorado Council of Government. One of the missing ones is recreation, and conservation easements don’t help there, unless perhaps you pay the landowner for the right to fish, etc. We should be used to that, though. Golf and skiing – on public lands – aren’t free, either.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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