Do you ever gaze out over the mountains and wonder how the landscape came to look the way it does? Being an actuary with a background in earth science and a passion for mountain environments, I do, all the time. Drives my wife crazy. Mainly because I like to think out loud and she never knows if I’m asking her something or just reflecting. She’s learned to pretty much just ignore me either way.
Having spent my childhood summers camping in Yosemite Valley, then growing up when the environmental movement started gaining speed in the 1970s, I decided to pursue a career in the earth sciences. But when it came time for me to actually go to college it was all business, courses that is. That’s where the money was, so that’s where I was headed. Or so I thought.
My first semester of business classes at the local junior college lasted just in time to withdrawal without it affecting my GPA. Bored me to death, so I said the heck with this (actually, I said worse), and went back to my high school job of installing awnings.
Didn’t take me long to say even worse things about that, so I headed back to college and started making up all the high school classes I skipped out on while trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life — always a work in progress.
My decision to study the earth sciences grew not only out of my childhood experiences camping in Yosemite, but also knowing if I didn’t study something I liked, I wouldn’t be in it for the long haul. I had no clue what I was going to do with a degree in earth science, but like a lot of people I ended up finding a career doing something else. The math I took in college did end up being useful, but my study of the earth is what brings me true joy today.
Anyway, having the mind of an actuary, it tends to never shut off, kind of like a pinball bouncing from one rubber bumper to another. For example, driving I-80 one afternoon, it struck me how homogenous the forest is in the Truckee Basin. No matter what direction you look, all the trees are the same height, as if the forest got a flattop.
Made me wonder. Either all the trees started growing at the same time or somebody’s giving the forest a flattop like citrus groves in order to keep the trees smaller and therefore easier and safer to pick.
While forests aren’t harvested for fruit like citrus, they are harvested for something else, timber. My obvious conclusion was the forests must have all been logged at the same time resulting in the trees being all the same height. Seemed logical, and turned out to be correct.
Thinking the Forest Service was in charge of what we see, that’s who I called to find out more.
My first thought was, like many of our national forests, the forests that surround Truckee were logged in earnest after World War II to provide the lumber needed to build homes for all those returning GIs eager to start making babies. Much to my surprise, my timing was off — way off. The Forest Service didn’t even exist when most of what is now the Tahoe National Forest was first logged.
Logging of northern Sierra forests initially ebbed and flowed with the fortunes and misfortunes of mining, at a time when all natural resources were to be concurred and used, not protected and enjoyed.
The western portion of the Tahoe National Forest was logged without mercy during the California Gold Rush, primarily to provide lumber to build boom towns starting in 1848. Then, when the placer mines panned out, for building and to shore up hard rock mines until the quartz vein of the Mother Lode went bust around 1860.
The Truckee Basin wasn’t logged heavily until the First Transcontinental Railroad started working its way over Donner Pass, and then when timber was needed to support the Comstock mining tunnels in the 1860s.
With the railroad opening eastern markets, by the late 1880s, the forests surrounding the Truckee Basin were nearly stripped bare.
It’s during that period, give or take 130 years, that the perfectly manicured, flat-topped, homogenous stands of Jeffery pines we see today began to sprout. There’s a picture of the denuded forests surrounding Truckee in the late 1880s on the Internet, and another picture circa 1920 showing the forest 30 or 40 years old. Striking contrasts to what we see today.
You never know what you’re going to learn when you try to see the forest through the trees.
Nick De Fiori is an actuary by profession and a lifelong outdoor enthusiast. He holds a bachelor’s degree in earth science and has a passion for mountain environments. A Truckee resident, he enjoys spending his free time with his wife and two young boys exploring the wilderness during the summer and skiing in the winter. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.