Alpine eco tour features slopes, bears and trees | SierraSun.com

Alpine eco tour features slopes, bears and trees

Matt Riddle

Photo by Colin FisherOutdoor enthusiasts gather for a lesson on local ecology.

It’s all about the birds and the bees. And the trees, marmots and shrews.

As a part of National Ski Areas Association’ s Sustainable Slopes Environmental Awareness Day, Alpine Meadows, a member resort, gave “eco tours” in what they hope will become a regular Saturday thing.

The eco tour started small for the first day: 10 participants in the morning tour and two in the afternoon. The purpose of the tours was to educate visitors on the mountain environment and Alpine Meadows’ conservation efforts.

“If you come here in the summer, you’ll see an incredible riparian area,” said Sarah Trebilcock, one of Alpine’s staff biologist that was leading the tour, as the group stood near a snowed-over creek on the lower mountain.

The tour was easy enough. The resort said that participants should be at least intermediate skiers or snowboarders to take the tour, but the first half could have been walked. The second half was a little more adventurous, but it wasn’t a lesson in off-piste skiing.

It was a nature tour.

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Trebilcock and her accomplices, Jeff Zotz, Leslie Palotas and Jean Paul D’Incelli, all double as ski or snowboard instructors. They spent much of the tour just identifying the natural qualities of their ski hill.

Trebilcock is in her 28th year at Alpine Meadows. She has a BS in biology from Michigan State and a Master’s in plant ecology from UC Davis. Zotz, her co-pilot for the tour, is in his second year at Alpine. He has a BS in environmental studies and a second degree in urban planning from UC San Diego.

The free tours are at 10 a.m. and at 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays only.

One avenue Alpine is pursuing in the conservation area is changing the fuel it uses for transportation buses and the groomers. They’re mixing 80 percent regular diesel fuel with 20 percent vegetable-based biodiesel fuel. The more environmentally friendly gas is renewable and it cuts emissions anywhere from 12 to 20 percent.

Biodiesel can’t be used 100 percent of the time, however, because it thickens in colder weather. The 80/20 mix keeps its viscosity low.

A major portion of the tour is spent identifying the types of trees within the ski resort boundaries and showing off some of the hill’s older trees. Some are believed to be anywhere from 1,000 years old to 1,800 years old, plus an aspen grove that’s believed to be older than that.

For those ancient trees, the team has estimated the ages based on drilling other trees in the Lake Tahoe Basin so they don’t have to go and drill every page.

“We don’t go around drilling trees,” Trebilcock said.

A western juniper on Tinker’s Nob is believed to be 1,300 to 1,800 years old.

“It’s the oldest single tree here,” Zotz said.

In Alpine’s eco tour, you’ll learn the trees you’re looking at are western white pines, sugar pines, firs, western hemlock, Jeffrey pines, western junipers and aspen to name a few.

An aspen grove along highway 395 near Mono Lake at Conway Summit is much older. It’s believed to be 3,000 years old.

In early pictures of Alpine Meadows, before it was a bona fide ski resort, the mountains don’t have as many trees as there are now.

It’s not because the area was logged heavily but because of avalanches. Avalanche control has been helping the slopes there to re-grow vegetation.

“Now we’re getting more plants,” Trebilcock said.

But, as much of the forested West, forest fire prevention has led to overgrowth in many areas, Alpine included. Without letting a natural fire cycle to continue, forests have grown more and more dense. Now some controlled burns and tree thinning are needed to sustain the healthy forests.

Apart from the flora of Alpine, there’s also the fauna. Several animals frequent the area, like black bear, mountain lion and deer. Several actually live within the ski area boundaries. Six bears are currently hibernating within the boundaries, Zotz said, and they receive special attention.

Marmots and pikas populate the upper talus slopes.

“Sometimes (in the spring), you’ll see 10 to 15 marmots out playing around (near Sherwood Cliffs),” Trebilcock said.

Most of the mammals are in hibernation, but the four tour guides had a sizable supply of photos to satisfy the curious.

In the lower elevations, martins, shrews, weasels, squirrels, chipmunks, flying squirrels and bats call Alpine home.

One aspect of the flying squirrel is that it’s actually omnivorous: It hunts other animals for some of its food.

The shrew has to eat three times its body weight every day to stay alive. Shrews also secrete venom in their teeth, so when they’re attacking a potential meal and their teeth get into it, they partially paralyze and stun the victim.

The tour ended at the base of that 1,800 year-old western juniper. It was a massively thick but short, slightly wind-twisted piece of work, centuries in the making.

The tours are open to anyone of at least intermediate skiing or snowboarding ability and will continue throughout the season.