Crosscut Escapes
The Beige Blur

The Beige Blur

February 8, 2021

The shrub-steppe ecosystem may seem boring, but it is essential to the survival of grouse, orcas and people.

When people think about Washington’s beautiful natural landscapes, most envision serrated mountain ranges, dense forests or perhaps the wild waves on the coast. 

But historically, the ecosystem that has taken up more of the state than any other is one many have experienced only as a beige blur from the window of a car or airplane. This collection of rolling yellow hills, gray and brown rocks, and dull green sage dominating the spaces between mountain ranges in the state’s middle is known as the shrub-steppe.

Before European settlers arrived, shrub-steppe covered over 200,000 square miles of the American West, 10 million acres of it in Washington. But as many as 80% has been lost to agriculture, development, habitat fragmentation and, increasingly, wildfire. Part of the reason the land disappeared so fast is because so few people realize it exists. 

Scientists, ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts are coming together to help preserve what remains of Washington’s shrub-steppe. Success will help protect endemic species like the sage grouse, as well iconic species downstream like the orca — and it will ensure a critical outdoor gateway remains for the diverse generations to come.

---

Credits

Host: Ted Alvarez

Engineering/Music: The Explorist

Links

Watch the "This Land Is Part of Us," a short film on the shrub-steppe ecosystem from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Conservation Northwest here.

The River Rewild

The River Rewild

February 1, 2021

Few rivers define a region like the Columbia, where tribal scientists are making headway in bringing back its most important species: salmon.

Since time immemorial, the Columbia River ha been a food source, a dividing line and a driver of culture and politics throughout the Pacific Northwest. And since humans have lived on it, we’ve sung about it — from Native hymns to Woody Guthrie’s “Roll On, Columbia.”

Ever since white settlers first came west, people have gone from relying on its seasonal bounty to attempting to tame it for their own purposes. Of those efforts, nothing has transformed the Columbia like the 18 dams that generate low-cost electricity and create reservoirs that support Washington’s year-round agricultural industry. Woody even wrote a song about the largest of those dams, the Grand Coulee — a 500-foot-tall, nearly milelong wall of concrete that is among the largest objects built by human hands.

But the dams also critically injured the river’s prolific salmon runs, eradicating the populations and flooding fishing grounds and villages that upstream salmon tribes relied on and lived in for millennia. Entire cultures were broken overnight, without even cursory consultation.

The memory of salmon has proved more powerful than concrete, however, as tribes and scientists have worked for decades to restore the presence of salmon in the upper Columbia. Now, the Colville Tribes are reporting that chinook salmon are spawning above the Grand Coulee dam for the first time in 80 years, offering hope that the river may yet return to its wild self again.

---

Credits

Host: Ted Alvarez

Engineering/Music: The Explorist

---

Links

Salmon spawn in the upper Columbia after an 80-year hiatus

Do You Speak Orca?

Do You Speak Orca?

January 26, 2021

Oceanographer Scott Veirs shows us how to listen for whales in Puget Sound, identify their signature sounds and maybe help save them.

If Puget Sound has an animal celebrity, it’s the orca — specifically, the southern resident population of killer whales. About 70 individuals divided into three family groups, or pods, make their home in our waters for large parts of the year. Fans from all over the world follow every movement of the southern residents; they mourn every whale death; they rejoice when a new calf joins a pod.

These camper-van-sized whales subsist almost entirely on salmon, which they hunt in the murky sea, using only sound. But the clicks, whistles and honks they employ while hunting are also the building blocks of a rich language we’re only beginning to decode. Some elements are understood by whales all over the world, but each pod has its own unique dialect used only among family members. 

In this episode of Crosscut Escapes, Veirs tells us about his Orcasound project, which allows anyone with an internet connection to listen for whales and even learn to identify the signature sounds of our cetacean superstars. As we listen, we’re learning more about how orcas behave when we can’t see them — and how we might save them from the human-caused noises that intrude on their watery world. 

---

Credits

Host: Ted Alvarez

Engineering: Karalyn SmithPiranha Partners

Music: The Explorist

The Carnivore Next Door

The Carnivore Next Door

January 18, 2021

During the pandemic, more people are spotting animals slinking around the neighborhood.

It’s no secret that Washington state is home to many charismatic carnivores — wolverines, bobcats, cougars and bears (oh my!). But it might come as a surprise that plenty of them live in our backyards, literally.

For years, healthy populations of coyotes, raccoons, bobcats and otters all have resided within Seattle city limits, while cougars and black bears haunt the suburbs and exurbs (though sometimes a cougar finds its way into Discovery Park). But with the pandemic drastically increasing the amount of time we spend near our houses, more and more people are spotting these animals slinking around the neighborhood.

Now scientists want your help to understand the carnivores among us. The Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University have teamed up to create the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project to track the animals, and anyone can participate using the Carnivore Spotter app.

We talk to wildlife biologists and project leaders Mark Jordan, Robert Long and Katie Remine to better understand why these creatures thrive in the big city, and how we can safely share the urban habitat we all need to survive.

---

Credits

Host: Ted Alvarez

Engineering: Karalyn SmithPiranha Partners

Music: The Explorist

Quiet Riot

Quiet Riot

January 11, 2021

In 2005, Gordon Hempton made a single spot within the Hoh Rain Forest famous for its serenity. But now it’s noisier than ever.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Olympic National Park offers a smorgasbord of ecosystems: rocky peaks, driftwood-strewn beaches and high-mountain meadows filled with wildflowers and bears. But its rain-fed temperate rain forests host some of the biggest trees in the world. 

The Hoh Rain Forest captured audio ecologist Hempton’s imagination for its serene quiet, free from the intrusion of human noise. For decades, he has recorded the birdsong, bugling elk and pitter-patter of rain in painstaking detail. He’s even declared one small section  “One Square Inch of Silence” as a monument to preserve the natural soundscape of Olympic National Park.

But in the decades since, air traffic over the Olympic Peninsula has made that square inch louder, not quieter — with the Navy’s “Growler” fighter jets providing the biggest obstacle. In this episode of Crosscut Escapes, Hempton and fellow bioacoustic ecologist Lauren Kuehne join us on a trip deep into the forest in search of silence.

---

Credits

Host: Ted Alvarez

Engineering: Karalyn Smith, Piranha Partners

Music: The Explorist

Volcano Songs

Volcano Songs

January 4, 2021

Mt. Rainier’s roiling innards make constant noise — and by listening, geologists can tell what kind of mood it's in.

Looming on the horizon like a holographic ice cream cone (when we can see it), Mt. Rainier draws eyes skyward everywhere in Puget Sound. But fear mingles with our fascination: Is it going to blow? And if so, when?

Thankfully, ‘The Mountain’ is one of the most monitored volcanoes in the world, and geologists can decode what’s happening with Rainier in part by isolating the unique sounds coming from within. Their findings can tell us when we should worry — but they also reveal that our entire region vibrates with an eerie music all its own. 

For this week’s episode, we’re joined on our trek to the edge of glaciers and deep within the rock by Kate Allstadt, of the U.S. Geological Survey, and Harold Tobin, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

---

Credits

Host: Ted Alvarez

Music/mixing: The Explorist

Crosscut Escapes Trailer

Crosscut Escapes Trailer

December 17, 2020

Coming January 5, 2021. Crosscut Escapes asks big questions about what makes the region tick — and visits the wildest, most unique places to find answers.