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In the News - Friday, jANUARY 27, 2006

Parks boss is

the natural choice

   Craig Axtell, the new superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, has arrived, and during his first week’s busy agenda of meetings, he was touring the park and its winter facilities.
   Last night (January 26), he was introduced at the Three Rivers Town Meeting and told that gathering how pleased he was to finally be here.

  “When you work anywhere in the Park Service, Sequoia is one of the places you hear about your entire career,” Axtell said.
   And since this park has been on the leading edge of so much of NPS management, there is little doubt that Three Rivers is the right place and the right time for this resource specialist.
   In fact, to a youngster raised in a small town in New Jersey, a career doing something outside seemed like a natural soon after he had enrolled as a sophomore at Colorado State in Fort Collins, Colo. Immersed in one of the nation’s top college programs in natural-resource management, Axtell said it didn’t take long to figure out where this academic trail was leading.

  “After graduating in 1974, I spent the next year completing a master’s degree in my department in natural resources management with a specialty in economics,” Axtell said.
   The Axtell story is of one of loyalty to Colorado State and the entire “Ram” family. His daughter, Erin, is currently enrolled there and son Corey is also a CSU graduate.
   His wife, Kristin, was sighted earlier in the week with sleeves rolled up, piecing together fabric as a new recruit of the Comfort for Kids volunteer quilting project at the Three Rivers Memorial Building. In their spare time, the couple is house-hunting for just the right Three Rivers property.
   For Craig, the Ash Mountain post is his second assignment as superintendent. His most recent job before coming here was at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. That was his first full-time position as a superintendent.

  “That park has some unique challenges,” Craig said. “It’s only 35,000 acres but it had more than one million annual recreation visits.”
   Bryce, in contrast to the more than 864,000 acres in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Axtell said, presents another very different set of challenges. But managing natural resources and making policy is what the career of Craig Axtell has been about from the outset.
   In fact, the NPS is the only employer he has ever known. But unlike Dick Martin, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ former superintendent who worked his way through the ranger ranks, Axtell began his NPS career as a park planner/economist in the regional office in Denver.

  “As a graduate student, I was looking at how the management of resources affects local communities,” Axtell said.
The forest focus on resources and the economy of recreation was ideal for the NPS of the mid-1970s, an agency built largely around the prestigious reputation of its natural gems in the Western parks. After a few years in Denver, Axtell moved on to Everglades National Park for some flatland field experience in south Florida.

  “In the fire world, you heard about two parks,” Axtell said. “Everglades and Sequoia. The use of fire as a management tool first started in the Everglades in the 1950s.”
   From 1980 to 1985, Axtell worked at Isle Royale in Michigan. There the resources manager became involved with the activities of the chief ranger.
   Like Sequoia, he said, Isle Royale is a great backpacking park. His next stop was a return stint in Colorado that lasted for 15 years.

  “At Rocky Mountain National Park, I was a division chief in resources management of a one-person division,” Axtell said. “Estes Park was a good place to raise a family; it had good schools and was a growing gateway town.”
   In some ways, Axtell said, Three Rivers reminds him of Estes Park. While he was there (1985 to 2000), the town population grew from 10,000 to 15,000.
   The last few years of that Colorado tenure, Axtell worked as the chief of biological resource management in Fort Collins, overseeing a funding initiative that challenged parks to upgrade their capability to scientifically manage natural resources. Ash Mountain received a portion of that funding.

  “At Fort Collins, I also hired the first veterinarian, Dr. Margaret Wild, to promote wildlife health in the parks,” Axtell said.
   In 2002, Axtell transferred to Bryce where he became superintendent. During that tenure, he also filled in at Grand Canyon as an acting superintendent for six months.
   Axtell points to the financial turn-around of the Bryce shuttle as an example of his best work at that Utah park. So if Sequoia implements its shuttle as planned, the project will be in experienced hands.
   Axtell says he has done some canoeing, river-rafting, diving, and is an avid backpacker and backcountry skier. When he’s not in the office working on the challenges of his new parks, he could be rather difficult to locate.

  “I always planned to be one of those seniors you see on the slopes who can ski for free when I’m 70,” Axtell said. “That is, if my body is willing and the knees hold out.”

Alcohol cause of

single-vehicle crash

   Driving the long and winding road around Lake Kaweah is difficult by day and downright dangerous at night. Add alcohol into the mix and the odds for a tragic accident are greatly increased.

  “It’s one of those eerie coincidences, but the last several accidents in that stretch of highway all involved DUI,” said a Three Rivers emergency volunteer. “What’s so incredible is, how do these drunk drivers even make it that far around the lake to the straightaway above Horse Creek?”
   On Saturday, Jan. 21, the all-too familiar scenario of the single-vehicle rollover crash once again alarmed several passing motorists at 6:30 p.m., just north of the Horse Creek Bridge on Highway 198.

  “We were driving home to the South Fork when we saw what looked like a vehicle stopped near the south side of the roadway,” reported one Three Rivers motorist. “At first the lights shining across the highway looked very strange until we realized it was a pickup lying on its roof.”
   Several motorists stopped to help the driver who was still inside the cab of the 1986 Nissan pickup. Within minutes, Greg Fox, local CHP officer, arrived on the scene to investigate.
   According to his report, the eastbound driver swerved to the left then careened back right off the south side of the roadway. The driver, identified as a 61-year-old Three Rivers man, drove up the embankment and rolled the pickup onto its left side and came to a stop on his roof partially on the shoulder and the eastbound roadway.
   The man was conscious and was helped out of the wreckage. He suffered lacerations to his hands and arms, but otherwise did not appear to be seriously injured. As a result of the accident, he was charged with misdemeanor DUI.

Nation’s drug czar

honors local rangers

   Marijuana production on lands within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks took a major dive during the 2005 growing season. Although thousands of plants were eradicated, increased budgets and specialized personnel have waged war on what has been an escalating problem by a large international drug-trafficking network that risks human lives and natural resources.
   And all these efforts did not go without notice.
   On Thursday, Jan. 19, John Walters, director of the National Drug Control Policy, awarded the Distinguished Service Award to a select group of rangers and special agents who comprise the National Park Service’s Investigation and Eradication Team. They were recognized for their work in eradicating illegal marijuana-growing operations on public lands throughout the nation and specifically in California during 2005.
   The team consists of Park Service personnel from Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Santa Monica Mountains, Whiskeytown, and Point Reyes, as well as the Sheriff’s Offices in Tulare and Fresno counties, CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, and other government agencies. Sequoia-Kings Canyon officers honored were Bob Wilson, Dave Walton, Tim Bailey, and Roger Mayo.
   During the award ceremony, Sequoia-Kings Canyon’s “Operation No Grow” program was cited for its success.

  “We depend on hard-working law-enforcement officials to help us reduce the supply of drugs in the United States,” said Walters. “By reducing the supply of this dangerous addictive substance, we make our communities, neighborhoods, and schools safer.”
   This month’s presentation was the first of what is anticipated to be an annual awards ceremony by the national drug control program that will recognize individuals and teams for the efforts to reduce illicit drug use, manufacturing, and trafficking, drug-related crime and violence, and drug-related health consequences.

Opportunities

abound for birders

   There are many benefits to living on a major route of the Pacific Flyway. This main migration thoroughfare passes directly through Central California.
   Many of the waterfowl now wintering in Kaweah Country were born and raised in Alaska, the Yukon, and the Mackenzie Valley in Canada’s Northwest Territory. Each year, upon “flying south for the winter,” birds find suitable quarters throughout the Central Valley.
   Two separate events will take advantage of the birding opportunities currently available.
   Tulare County Audubon Society— On Saturday, Jan. 28, a field trip will make three stops to view the abundant waterfowl and wading birds and, hopefully, a bald eagle or two.
The day begins at Lake Kaweah where Larry Baker, a ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will lead the avian excursion.
If the “Kaweah Christmas Bird Count” in December was any indication, there should be plenty of birds to see. On Wednesday, Dec. 28, four volunteers counted 1,180 birds, comprising 69 species, including bald eagles and an osprey, from the Slick Rock Recreation Area to just below Terminus Dam.

  “Participants of the upcoming field trip should see many of the birds recorded during the Christmas Bird Count,” said Larry.
   Following the Lake Kaweah tour, the Audubon field trip will continue at Bravo Lake in Woodlake and along Dry Creek Drive.
   Sequoia Riverlands Trust— On Sunday, Jan. 29, from 9 to 11 a.m., at the SRT’s 152-acre Dry Creek Preserve, a tour among the sycamores will reveal both resident and migratory birds.
John Lockhart of the Sequoia Natural History Association and Nathan Higgins, SRT land steward, will lead the tour. The preserve is located two miles from Highway 216 (the Woodlake road) on Dry Creek Drive.
   Participants should dress warmly and weather-appropriate, wear footwear that is comfortable and sturdy, bring sunglasses and a hat, and bring water and food. A change of shoes and socks may be necessary in case of wet feet.
   A bird book and binoculars are optional, but greatly enhance the viewing experience. Both events are free and open to the public.

Woodlake High Sports:
Mid-season in the

East Sequoia League

   By a quirk of the East Sequoia League schedule for the last several seasons, Woodlake and Exeter have played each other in soccer and basketball at the halfway point of the league schedule. In wrestling, the other traditional winter sport, Woodlake chose not compete in the 2005-06 season.
   Exeter’s athletic program received a best all-around athletic award from the ESL in 2005 that was largely based on the success of its volleyball and softball teams that have won several league titles.
   Next season, with its 1,000+ enrollment, Exeter will be moving up to Division 3 for league play. Woodlake, with an enrollment of 720, will continue league play in Division 4.
   Playing the much bigger Exeter, a longtime neighborhood rival, is always a good yardstick of how the Tigers are doing and the teams’ prospects for postseason.

  GIRLS SOCCER-- On Tuesday, Jan. 24, the Lady Tigers outlasted the Monarchs, 3-2. That was the second win over the Monarchs in league play and has Woodlake at 8-0 poised to win another ESL title.
   Juniors Janee Plunkett and Natalie Flores and senior Sonni Fultz scored Tiger goals. Plunkett’s left-footed lob shot was the game-winner.
   Kohl Berry, a sophomore from Three Rivers, is the Tiger goalie.
  BOYS SOCCER-- Also on Tuesday, the Tiger boys soccer team defeated Exeter 3-2 in an overtime shootout thriller. The game-winner was a penalty kick by Gavino Cendejas.
   With the win, Woodlake raised its league record to 8-1. Their only loss of the season came on January 4 at Dinuba.
   Coach Roy Guerra’s Tigers played the rematch at home last night (January 26). Only Dinuba stands in the way of Guerra’s seventh league title in eight seasons as Woodlake’s head coach.

  “Our guys know we have the talent to beat Dinuba,” he said. “The match at Woodlake will be a different story.”
   Guerra said after winning two Valley titles in the last three seasons that he has already talked to the guys about moving up for playoffs.

  “Depending on what happens, we might be competing this year in the Division 3 playoffs,” Guerra said. “I think our guys can play with anybody and we’re ready for the challenge.”

  GIRLS BASKETBALL-- Lopsided home court losses to Corcoran and to the league-leading Monarchs assured the varsity Lady Tigers (4-3) the middle of the East Sequoia League pack at the mid-season point.
   The team will begin the second half of their league season impressively if they can beat a very physical team at Dinuba tonight (Friday, Jan. 27).

   BOYS BASKETBALL-- The varsity boys (1-6) have struggled through a very difficult league season but did manage an upset win on the road over a very good Corcoran team, 58-42.
   Juan Manzano, junior post player, led Woodlake with a season-high 26 points. John Gomez-Carretero, a talented sophomore, added 18 points.

YEAR IN REVIEW
The August 12 headline summed it up in three words: “Bad news summer.” As of that date, nine people had perished in 2005 due to weather-related deaths in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks. THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH in retrospect, a month-long series, continues...

PART 3
MAY 2005

   May 6— The local whitewater rafting season kicked off with the second annual Kaweah River Whitewater Race. The whitewater course from the Gateway to Slicky took just a little over an hour to complete. The event was started by Frank Root, owner of Kaweah Whitewater Adventures, to call attention to the exciting recreational opportunities available on the Kaweah River.
FRED TAFTI, owner of the Indian Restaurant currently under construction, discovered a body at the Sierra Drive property. The unidentified male was thought to be camping at the site and no foul play was suspected.
   THE COMFORT for Kids project, local volunteers who make quilts for terminally children, proudly displayed their 1,000th quilt of the season. Fifty volunteer workers completed a total of 1,176 quilts in the 2005 session.
   May 13— Two Three Rivers teachers, Richard Lebsock (seventh-grade) and Troy Hayes (fifth-grade) announced that they were leaving at the end of the current school year. Lebsock retired with a “golden handshake” while Hayes departed to take a job closer to home in the Porterville district.
   The body that had been found at The Indian Restaurant site was identified as Robert Kurtz of Porterville. The preliminary cause of death was listed as natural causes, pending an autopsy.
   May 20— More than 300 members of the notorious Hell’s Angels motorcycle club roared into town for a rally and booked the entire Holiday Inn Express and several other lodging units in the area. In a very impressive show of force, a multi-agency law-enforcement task force nearly outnumbered the Angels.
   THE WARMING temperatures in the upper 80s started melting more snow and really heated up the local whitewater rafting season. Lake Kaweah eclipsed its previous fill level of 145,000 acre-feet.
   BLASTING BELOW Lemon Cove along the shoulders of Sierra Drive (Hwy. 198) caused some intermittent delays for commuters.
THE THREE Rivers Fire Station was dedicated.
   May 27— Lake Kaweah surpassed its former storage record of nearly 150,000 acre-feet. The recent run of 90-degree temperatures was making a sizable dent in the biggest snowpack since 1998.

JUNE 2005
   June 3— Bryan Coker, who was celebrating his 21st birthday with friends in Sequoia National Park, drowned while swimming in the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. Coker was swept away by the fast-moving current. His body was located 24 hours later, more than four miles downriver.
   THE WOODLAKE HIGH School Class of 2005 collectively received $354,894 in scholarships.
   June 10— Voters approved Measure C, an initiative that in November 2004 had failed. The measure will raise some much-needed funds for the Three Rivers Memorial District by assessing each parcel in the district a per annum fee of $23.
   June 17— The Kaweah claimed another victim, this time a beloved dog of a Three Rivers visitor. The dog had wandered off from the Gateway Lodge, and was later found by some rafters floating in the river.
   Lake Kaweah reached its new, higher fill level, a 21-foot gain in elevation made possible by the recent raising of Terminus Dam.
   June 24— The total rainfall for the season (July 1-June 30) was 25.02 inches at the 1,000-foot elevation (central Three Rivers).

JULY 2005
   July 1— Kevin Ready of New York City underestimated the power of the Kaweah when he entered the river near the Buckeye Tree Lodge and was immediately swept away. He was able to grasp onto a rock near the Pumpkin Hollow Bridge where he was rescued by helicopter.
   A BACKPACKER was found dead in Evolution Lake, along the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park. He was identified as Peter Spoecker, 64, of Joshua Tree. Backcountry travel remained hazardous though the summer due to a sustained snowpack.
   July 8— Three Rivers residents driving an SUV and towing a trailer took matters into their own hands when they suspected an auto theft in progress. The couple, with their children in the car, jack-knifed their rig on the North Fork Bridge to block the traffic lane. Two suspects were apprehended; another fled and remained at large.
   July 15— Noah Dominguez, 24, from Southern California, drowned in the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River at Buckeye Flat. It was the second drowning of the season.
   THREE WILDLAND fires occurred within a 72-hour period. Nearly 2,900 acres were consumed in the separate incidents.
   July 22— A single-vehicle accident around Lake Kaweah, caused by drunk-driving and excessive speed, causing two of the four passengers who were not wearing seatbelts to be ejected from the car, killing one.
   ERIC RAUSCH, 31, of New Jersey was reported as overdue from a lone backpacking trip into the Tableland area of Sequoia National Park. One day later, he was found dead in the upper reaches of the Kaweah River’s Marble Fork.
   July 29— A motorcyclist was killed on the highway around Lake Kaweah after hitting a car that was attempting to enter the roadway from the Kaweah Recreation Area.
   THE ORANGE Tree, a new restaurant at the junction of Highways 198 and 216 opened; the Three Rivers Golf Course close for the remainder of the summer.

AUGUST 2005
   August 12— A Napa Valley Boy Scout troop leader and a 13-year-old Scout were killed after lightning struck a shelter they had erected to protect them from a storm in the backcountry of Sequoia National Park.
   RANGERS RECEIVED a report of two swimmers struggling in the Kaweah River and arrived to find that a bystander had pulled one of the potential victims to shore. The other victim, Santos Aparecio, 44, of Los Angeles, died at the scene.
   Note: In the past decade, The Kaweah Commonwealth has been able to complete its year-in-review in an issue or two. This year, it’s three weeks and we’ve only made it to July.
   Unless there’s an outcry, we’ll wrap up the series here and go on about the news of the week since we’re already 1/12th of the way through 2006.

 
THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH is published every Friday in Three Rivers, California.
EDITORS/PUBLISHERS: John Elliott and Sarah Barton Elliott
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