Native Shrublands: Past, Present, and Future

It is interesting to think about what natural California was like in the past, and sobering to consider its future. Below are several photos that will offer a few point/counterpoints when discussing how to treat the nature we have left.

The loss of native shrublands has likely been significant over the past thousand years or so, due first to Native American burning, then over-grazing and burning by Spanish and Mexican ranchers, followed by American ranchers and farmers. Non-native weeds and grasses found these  heavily disturbed environments ready to colonize.

Although we do not have accurate records of what California’s landscape looked like prior to the arrival of humans, we do have images that record our impact prior to the massive development in the 20th century.

Old Mission SD c.jpgMission Valley, 1890s, and the old San Diego Mission. Note denuded hills in the background and the rocky earth in the foreground, likely the result of excessive over-grazing, fire, and wood collecting. Hwy 163 now goes through the gap in the hills on the left.

Old Mission Modern bMission Valley, 2008. Note the recovery of native vegetation on the hills in the background as compared to the first photo. The mission is obscured by surrounding development.

Mission Dam Old b2The old mission dam on the San Diego River, approximately 1920s.

Mission Dam b.jpgThe old mission dam, 2008. The hills in the background remain dominated by non-native grasses as they were in the 1920s, while the foreground above the river appears to have lost additional native shrub habitat.

Type converted front range II.jpgIncreased fire frequency has eliminated most of the native habitat in the front country of the Angeles National Forest, replacing it with non-native grasses. Remnants of sage scrub and chaparral still cling on in isolated arroyos.

Trabuco Dist Type Conversion fuel break.jpgFire managers often purposely type-convert native shrublands to non-native grasslands in an attempt to create “fuel” breaks. Ironically, these areas are much more flammable than the original plant community due to the presence of flashy fuels. Photo: Trabuco Ranger District, Cleveland National Forest.

Untitled a.jpgOver-grazing has created and maintained a rangeland environment filled with non-native weeds and grasses with a few old oak trees scattered across the landscape. Oak saplings that do manage to emerge are eliminated by cattle. Photo: San Luis Obispo County.

Untitled IIa.jpgA relatively undisturbed oak woodland with a sage scrub understory. Note the mixed-aged oaks in comparison to the previous photo. This likely represents what much of the type-converted landscape of San Luis Obispo County once looked like.

Oak Woodland IIThis is one of the few, remaining natural oak woodland/grasslands in Southern California. Native purple needle grass and deer grass dominate this landscape of shallow clay soils on top of an ancient, basaltic lava flow. Native grasslands are typically found on such soil types, hence their restricted distribution. Photo: Santa Rosa Plateau, Riverside County.

What does the future hold? With climate change, native shrublands are predicted to disappear in the southern part of California, probably replaced by non-native grasslands. Areas that will become more suitable for chaparral are predicted to move northward. Whether or not chaparral will be able to successfully colonize those areas remains to be seen.

Climate Change CA bThe Thorne paper on the impact of climate change in California is available here.

There is often a debate over how much grassland there was in California prior to the arrival of Europeans, and where and how frequently Native Americans burned to create and maintain grassy landscapes.* However, discussing what the past landscape looked like, while interesting, is not particularly helpful when making decisions about how to preserve what’s left of California’s natural environment today.

If we want to preserve “cultural landscapes,” then sure, we can over-burn native habitat as Native Americans likely did and create vast, grass-dominated areas. The problem is that now, those areas will be overwhelmed by invasive weeds, not native purple needle grass.

And yes, it is reasonable to assume that Native Americans burned areas over and over to eliminate the natural vegetation communities in favor of those that improved survival. Shrublands are not the most conducive environments to make a living from, for humans anyway. That said, there’s enough disturbance on our landscapes already.

The basic problem with the hypothesis that grasslands once dominated much of Southern California and the central coast is that it is utilized to support the notion that native shrublands are unnatural and need to be mitigated. We confront this all the time in land management documents, court testimony, and casual conversations. While it is fading as its adherents fade away themselves, it still has significant support because it confirms the biases of land managers, ranchers, developers, and fire managers who see chaparral has something they want to eliminate.

We have enough of a challenge in dealing with the impacts of climate change on native plant communities. We don’t need to add to it by increasing disturbances to protect cultural landscapes that were by definition, artificial and destructive of native species.

* A good paper that reviews the impact Native Americans had on the central coast can is: Keeley, J.E. 2002. American Indian Influence on Fire Regimes in California’s Coastal Ranges. Journal of Biogeography 29: 303-320.
Posted in Climate Change, Fire, Value of Natives | Leave a comment

Inspiration at Devil’s Punchbowl

For many Californians, the most accessible place to experience nature is in the chaparral, a shrub-dominated ecosystem rich in biodiversity that can be found in every county in the state. As a consequence, chaparral provides one of the best places for Californians to learn about and connect with the natural environment. In some wild land areas, local governments have built nature centers to help facilitate such an experience. One of the first nature centers we visited during our research was at Devil’s Punchbowl, a protected natural area administered by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.

When we first entered the park’s wood-paneled nature center, a small building with an open, uncluttered display hall, it appeared as if we were on our own. Along two walls were cabinets filled with an array of bird and mammal taxidermy, artifacts, and photos. Embedded within the other two walls were ten terrariums containing an assortment of live reptiles and insects. In the far corner was a tall counter with an opening behind that led into a small office containing an old book case with additional specimens from the park, all neatly arranged on shelves. On the counter sat a dissection scope and a two-foot-tall glass cylinder filled with earth. Attached to the wall was a two-foot diameter section of a cut pine tree. It was hollowed out and  faced with a plate of glass to reveal an active beehive within.

Dave Numer, ranger and superintendent of Devil’s Punchbowl, emerged from the back office. “So, how do you think the bees get in and out of there?” he asked. Wearing a crisp uniform and a wide-brimmed hat, he leaned against the desk with a broad smile and he let us consider the question for a brief moment. Tapping the back of the log with a small, metal pointer that he extended with a snap, he provided the answer. “It’s connected to the outside by a PVC pipe right back there.”

Numer then turned our attention to the glass cylinder. “And take a look at this!” He pulled out a thumb-sized flash light and shined it into a small, excavated chamber. Translucent, marble-sized golden globes hung from the chamber’s ceiling. The globes were moving slightly from side to side, glistening in the beam of light. The scene was right out of a nature documentary.

“Honeypot ants!” we exclaimed.

“Honeypot ants, yes! And they’re native here in the park.” Numer added that the globes were the enlarged abdomens of specialized honeypot worker ants (Myrmecocystus mexicanus) capable of storing a honey-like substance used to provide food for the colony during lean times. Then he pointed out the glass cylinder’s partially open lid and a little pile of dirt on his desk. “How do you think that got there?”

“The ants?”

“Yes, the ants! They leave the nest after I depart at the end of the day and roam the nature center all night.” He enjoyed waiting for our reaction. “They always return by morning. One day when I came in early, I caught them hauling up a dead moth they had found on the floor somewhere.”

Numer shared more of his knowledge about the ants, the bees, and the center’s other displays, and offered to take us outside. Joined by his assistant Olivia, he discussed their favorite points of interest until being interrupted by a raucous noise from above. An old raven was calling out from his perch in the large pinyon pine near a small building across from the center. Numer laughed then nodded toward the building. “That was my home for five years when I lived on site.” He looked back at us. “I’ve been here for nearly 43 years now.”

Devils II c.jpg

Numer continued sharing his knowledge about the desert chaparral in the park, scattered between the pines and junipers, and the recent drought’s impact on the manzanita. The gnarled, gray stems of several dead manzanita individuals were still pointing skyward. Pointing off into the distance he said, “A fire burn over that farthest ridge in 1953.” The area was still relatively bare. The pines and junipers had not come back well. Turning our attention into the canyon below, Numer encouraged us to explore it. “There’s a little turn off along the trail by a large log. You can climb over a few boulders there and have a great view of the park.”

Finalizing our review of Devil’s Punchbowl after our hike, we were surprised to realize that references to the chaparral, and nearly everything we were measuring in our evaluation, were missing at the nature center. Yet the place inspired us. It was the learning environment Numer had created over the past four decades, his questions and how he asked them, that caught our attention. The most compelling part of our experience was Numer’s enthusiasm and personal warmth, not the content of the exhibits. We wanted to come back.

In evaluating all of Southern California’s chaparral-connected nature centers and speaking with dozens of naturalists, our experience at Devil’s Punchbowl was affirmed. The state of chaparral education cannot be discovered by merely reviewing content. The people behind the desk, the outdoor educators, and the volunteer naturalists on the trail play a critical role in whether or not the content is meaningful to visitors. These people create relationships that establish the foundation required to encourage lasting change within the minds of those they inspire. This observation offers an alternative to how nature education is often approached. Rather than asking what we want to teach, a naturalist’s goals might be better served by asking what change we hope to achieve in those we will be teaching.

What change do we seek as nature educators? A general consensus emerged during our research – to inspire a love for nature that will foster curiosity to learn more and the desire to care for and protect the natural environment. For us, Dave Numer’s approach to interpretation achieved exactly that.

DSC_9054 b.jpg

Devils I x2

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Native California Superblooms!

The best time to experience massive displays of California’s native wildflowers is between late February and early April. Every once and awhile, when the right combination of rain and temperature occurs, our wildflower populations experience what is colorfully called a superbloom!

You can check for local conditions here.

Between Feb 29 – March 1, 2016, we were lucky enough to explore the wonderful Death Valley Superbloom.

Here’s the route we took for our three day trip:

1. Drive to Lone Pine and spend the night at a comfy motel.
2. Get up pre-dawn, run outside and catch the morning light hitting the eastern Sierra Nevada.
3. Drive to Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley and snag a camp spot EARLY (all the motels in the valley will likely be booked).
4. Drive south toward Badwater. The best yellow Desert Sunflower explosions are often past Badwater. The best area we found on our trip was about 10 miles south.
5. Keep driving to Ashford Junction. About a couple miles before the Junction, the Sand Verbenas will likely be in wild display.
6. Drive back to Stovepipe Wells. Go to the bar and enjoy yourself.
7. Next morning head north toward Scotty’s Castle. Stop from time to time whether or not you see flowers from the car. There is a whole new set of species that you will have seen on your trip to Badwater.
8. Come back here and share some of your photos!

Enjoy some of our photos from the 2016 Death Valley Superbloom below.

Sierra Range of Light bThe Range of Light in the morning from Lone Pine.

death-valley-phacelia-phacelia-vallis-mortae-bDeath Valley Phacelia (Phacelia vallis-mortae).

desert-chicory-bDesert Chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana).

Devils GC b.jpgDevil’s Golf Course.

5-spot-eremalche-rotundifolia-bDesert 5 Spot (Eremalche rotundifolia).

desert-5-spot-with-friend-bDesert 5 Spot with a sixth spot friend.

baby-bHuman emerging from the bloom.

baby-with-parents-bProspective parents consider emerging sunflower baby.

boot-with-pollen-bPollen and Boots!

calthaleaf-phacelia-phacelia-calthifolia-bCaltha Leafed Phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia).

brown-eyed-evening-primrose-camissonia-claviformis-bBrown eyed Evening Primrose (Camissonia claviformis).

camissonia-boothii-bottle-washer-bBottle Washer (Camissonia boothii).

camissonia-brevipes-bCamissonia brevipes.

creosote-bCreosote hanging out at the bottom of Ubehebe Crater.

dead-shrub-bThe last stand.

sand-verbena-abronia-villosa-bSand Verbena (Abronia villosa).

sand-verbena-abronia-villosa-ii-bThe full Monty.

SF and Mountain snow b.jpgTelescope Peak and friends.

shrike-with-bug-ii-bLoggerhead Shrike at lunch.

shrike-iv-bAfter lunch.

Gilia cana Showy Gilia b.jpgShowy Gilia (Gilia cana).

gravel-ghost-atrichoseris-platyphylla-bGravel Ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla).

mohavea-breviflora-bMohavea breviflora.

painters-palate-ii-bArtist’s Palate.

me-i-bThe Photographer.

Pete III.jpgThe Photographer’s pal.

sierra-range-of-light-bReturning to the Range of Light with the Owen’s Lake carpet.

Posted in Value of Natives | 1 Comment

An Appeal to California’s Fire Agencies

Emphasizing home flammability and the value of nature can save more homes during wildfires and help create healthier communities

 Local, state, and federal fire agencies are urged to expand their approach to reduce loss of life and property to wildfires. Currently, the primary, and sometimes the only message citizens hear is to clear native vegetation (“fuel”) from around their homes. While creating defensible space is a critical component of fire risk reduction, it fails to address the main reason homes burn – embers landing on flammable materials in, on, or around the home, igniting the most dangerous concentration of fuel available, the house itself.

In addition, by designating native habitat as merely “fuel,” citizens are encouraged to see nature as something dangerous rather than a valuable part of their local community. Intact natural habitat provides vital ecosystem services that are necessary to maintain the health and well-being of surrounding human communities.

Fire risk reduction efforts must emphasize BOTH how to reduce home flammability and how to create defensible space without demonizing nature. Many homeowners have complied with defensible space regulations only to see their homes burn in a wildfire.

Public education materials must make clear that without addressing the entire fire risk reduction equation your home has a greater chance of burning in a wildfire. This includes creating defensible space AND retrofitting flammable portions of homes such as,

– the replacement of wood shake roofing and siding
– installation of ember resistant attic vents
– removal of flammable landscaping plants such as Mexican fan palms and low-growing acacia
– removal of leaf litter from gutters and roofing
– removal of flammable materials near the home such as firewood, trash cans, wood fences, etc.
– roof/under eave low-flow exterior sprinklers

It also must be made clear to homeowners that by having well maintained and lightly irrigated vegetation within the outer 70 foot portion of the 100 foot defensible space zone can play an important role in protecting the home from flying embers and radiant heat. Bare earth clearance creates a bowling alley for embers and can actually increase fire risk if invaded by flammable, non-native weeds. In addition, research has shown that there is no additional structure protection provided by clearing beyond 100 feet, even on steep slopes, and the most important treatment zone is from 16‐58 feet.

Applicable fire research and a comprehensive approach to home protection can be found here:
http://www.californiachaparral.org/bprotectingyourhome.html

carlsbad-fire-halseyb_edited-1The New Message (above). The photo above shows a home with extensive defensible space and “fire-resistant” vegetation that burned during the May 14, 2014, Poinsettia Fire in Carlsbad, California. Addressing the entire fire risk reduction equation is essential.

555_ps-sd-county-def-space_edited-2
The Old Message.
A photo similar to the one above, often used in fire safety pamphlets, creates a false sense of security by implying that defensible space is adequate to protect a home from wildfire. As evidenced by previous photo, defensible space is not enough.

 

Mountain communities learning to use federal grants to eliminate wood roofs, a lead cause of home loss in wildfire

David Yegge, a fire official with the Big Bear Fire Department, is about to submit his fourth grant proposal to the FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant program to pay up to 70% of the cost of re-roofing homes with fire-safe materials in the Big Bear area of San Bernardino County. Yegge has also assisted the towns of Idyllwild and Lake Tahoe to do the same. The grant includes the installation of non-ember intrusion attic vents.

“What Yegge is doing is revolutionary,” said Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute. “For so long, the science of why homes actually burn in wildfires has been ignored by government agencies in favor of grants to treat wildland vegetation far from communities. Retrofitting fire-prone structures, in conjunction with 100 feet of defensible space, is the most effective way to protect lives and property from wildfire.”

Yegge’s first grant was for $1.3 million in 2008. He identified 525 wooden-roofed homes in need of retrofits in the community of Big Bear Lake. Only 67 remain. Helping to push homeowners to take advantage of the program is a forward-thinking, “no-shake-roof” ordinance passed by the Big Bear City Council in 2008 requiring roofing retrofits of all homes by this year. San Bernardino County passed a similar ordinance in 2009 for all mountain communities. Homeowners have until next year to comply. Such “future effect clause” ordinances can be models for other local governments that have jurisdiction over high fire hazard areas. “The California Legislature should adopt such an approach and Cal Fire should incorporate such retrofit programs into its new Vegetation Treatment Program,” Halsey said.

In order to qualify for the FEMA grant, a cost/benefit analysis must be completed. “Our analysis indicated that $9.68 million would be saved in property loss for every $1 million awarded in grant funds,” Yegge said. “FEMA couldn’t believe the numbers until they saw the research conducted by then Cal Fire Assistant Chief Ethan Foote in the 1990s. There’s a 51% reduction in risk by removing wooden roofs.”

“The FEMA application process is challenging, but well worth it,” said Edwina Scott, Executive Director of the Idyllwild Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council. “More than 120 Idyllwild homes are now safer because of the re-roofing program.”

Additional Information

The state agency that manages the grants is the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services  (Cal OES), Hazard Mitigation Grants Division. Cal OES is the go between agency and they decide what grants get funded based upon priority established by the State Hazard Mitigation Plan. Without the help and assistance of Cal OES, it is not likely the FEMA grants would have be funded.

David Yegge given fire leadership award:
http://kbhr933.com/current-news/david-yegge-awarded-firewise-leadership-award/

The Mountain Area Safety Taskforce re-roofing program:
http://www.thinisin.org/shake/

The San Bernardino County re-roofing ordinance:
http://www.thinisin.org/shake/images/DOWNLOADS/ORDINANCES/ord_4059.pdf

FEMA grant program:
http://www.fema.gov/pre-disaster-mitigation-grant-program

A comprehensive approach to home protection:
http://www.californiachaparral.org/bprotectingyourhome.html

PHOTOS: One of the only houses left standing after the 2003 Cedar Fire hit the San Diego community of Scripps Ranch. The owner had just replaced his wood shake roof with a firesafe composite type, over the protests of the local homeowner’s association.

pinecastle-ii

bos-pinecastle-ii_edited-1

Posted in Fire, Misconceptions, Politics | Leave a comment

Dinosaur Flatulence and Coffee?

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The climate of the early Mesozoic – It’s coming right back at ya through your car’s tail pipe and your power plant’s smokestack. That’s why we are returning to a climate that’s overall going to be a lot warmer.

How? Here are the facts:

1. When adding a large amount of a substance to a semi-closed system such as the earth’s atmosphere, there will be an impact, just like adding a lot of sugar to your coffee.


2. By burning oil and coal, we are releasing back into the atmosphere billions of tons of carbon that has been locked up prior to and during the time of the dinosaurs: about 180 – 65 million years ago for oil, 360 – 65 million years ago for coal.

3. Increased carbon in the form of carbon dioxide creates an insulating layer around a closed system (the earth), just like glass or plastic coverings do for greenhouses.

4. All of the above relates to the laws of conservation of mass and energy. Matter and energy can change from one form to another, but is always conserved. In other words, you can’t pull matter out of the ground and burn it without it ending up somewhere else.

A challenge to those who deny our role in climate change: Please explain how it is possible that the release of a heat-retaining substance back into the atmosphere, one that has been locked away for millions of years, will not cause the climate to become similar to when all that carbon was in the atmosphere in the first place.

What’s dinosaur flatulence (or mammalian flatulence) have to do with it all? Not much. But speculation that dinosaur flatulence may have modified the climate way back when has provided a lot of hot air for climate change denialists to create a straw man to poke fun at in an attempt to discredit climate science. More here:
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/media-blows-hot-air-about-dinosaur-flatulence-84170975/?no-ist

A note regarding use of the term “global warming:” it would be best to use “climate change” instead. Some areas will become cooler, some warmer, some will have more extreme weather events, some less. Yes, the earth is warming, but such a descriptor can lead to confusion. The earth’s “climate” is warming overall, but local “weather” events may vary.

A good climate change Q & A link:
http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/basics/facts.html

Posted in Climate Change, Politics | Leave a comment