The trees and mountains seem taller every day

For the last few weeks in Arcata, I have been killing lots of Douglas-fir. My pulaski and handsaw have felled or girdled seedlings, saplings, and young trees (no older than 80 years). Douglas-fir/Tanoak forests dominate the Coast Ranges of NW California. In these mountains there are pockets of prairies, offering ecological heterogeneity to wildlife and vegetation. Similar to the story all over the USA, wildfire suppression has deprived grasslands of their main safeguard against forest encroachment. And since it isn’t practical to bring prescribed burning crews and engines to all BLM-managed prairies on their historic burning intervals, I have been lending an unnatural hand (evolutionarily speaking) to the grassy strongholds.

Prairie with another small prairie across the valley.

Prairie with another small prairie across the valley.

As my hours here quickly dwindle, my fondness for this area continues to grow. The mountains and redwoods seem taller now. The eyes through which I perceive the landscape have changed dramatically over the last 4 months. As my understanding of the area increases, I have been aware of a deepening of my vision. Here follows the timeline of my blossoming understanding.

When I first arrived, Arcata was nestled between hills and coastal plains. About a month later, when from the ocean I saw a full moon rise over the town, in my mind the “hills” became mountains (of course they have always been mountains). A month after that, with my radius of exploration expanding, I could feel how the mountains east of Arcata fit into the context of ranges extending along the coast and east to the Central Valley. A few weeks after that, as I visited new vantage points, the estuaries on the coast were integrated (in my mind) with their river valleys penetrating multiple ranges. I learned the directions the rivers travel to their origins, as steep as 6,000’ above and 113 river miles from their estuaries. Recently, I comprehended the entire canyon shape of a BLM-managed tributary to a larger creek. In the diverse landscapes of The West, the potential depth of understanding is limitless! And I have only been here for 4 months, so I know that my eyes are only absorbing a fraction of what a lifelong local sees.

My ability to assimilate the details of a Northern California landscape is infinitely greater now. My two CLM internships have taught me that it takes me months to graduate from seeing a landscape to seeing a landscape IN ITS CONTEXT. This is the natural progression of understanding in general. We can only increase our understanding so much at a time. But once our circle of understanding is expanded, we can build more circles starting from that circle. Pretty soon, a bigger picture emerges – the Flower of Life. Perhaps this is the most appropriate symbolic representation of my time working for the Chicago Botanic Garden!

The Flower of Life. I've been seeing this all over Arcata but I didn't learn its name until yesterday.

The Flower of Life. I’ve been seeing this all over Arcata but I didn’t learn its name until yesterday.

The Miracle Mile

Four months ago I don’t even think I was aware that the Klamath Mountains existed. While the Arcata BLM field office only dips a toe into the Klamaths, I am using this blog entry to elucidate why they have been a fascination for me during my time in Northwest California. The cause for my enchantment can be summarized by one word: diversity! A popular example of the Klamaths’ biodiversity is their enriched conifer stands, where an unusual number of conifer species grow in close proximity. Specifically, the “Miracle Mile” contains 18 species within one square mile.

Occupying less than 10,000 square miles in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon, the Klamaths’ geologic diversity is what enables the rich biodiversity. The road to the Klamaths’ current manifestation began 500 million years ago, with continental fragments and volcanic island arcs in the ocean that eventually were pushed onto land, fused with other rock types, metamorphosed, and overlaid with various sediments. All of these events gave birth to their own unique rock type. And after all of that tectonic jostling, the Klamaths wound up at the crossroads between the Coast Ranges, Cascades, Sierra Nevada, Great Basin, and CA’s Central Valley. Species of all 5 bioregions can be found in the Klamaths, in addition to endemics that grow nowhere else.

Due to the heterogeneity of soil and climate microsites that the mountains provide in countless combinations, the region has been able to hold on to species that have long since been extinguished from nearby mountain ranges. A striking example of this is Darlingtonia californica, a carnivorous pitcher plant growing on serpentine soils whose closest relative is found in coastal bogs of North Carolina. And the Klamaths hold the world’s last populations (growing healthily) of Brewer’s Spruce. The Klamaths have the southernmost populations of conifers common in Alaska, and the northernmost populations of conifers growing in Mexico. Conifers grow next to each other that associate nowhere else. Because of this, species are hybridizing into new variations. And populations of certain species behave differently than anywhere on Earth, often because they grow on different soils.

I was lucky enough to hike to the Miracle Mile with Michael Kauffman, the author of Conifer Country (, the book that introduced me to much of this information. Before the hike I could barely tell the difference between pines, spruces, and firs. How naïve I was! On the hike I learned to identify sugar, ponderosa, Jeffrey, western white, lodgepole, whitebark, and foxtail pine; white, Shasta, Douglas, and subalpine fir; Brewer and Engelmann spruce; mountain hemlock; Pacific yew; incence-cedar; and common juniper. What I imagined would be subtle differences often turned out to be glaring individual expressions. But there were still plenty of cryptic hybrids and mischievous misbehavers to confuse our group of professional and amateur botanists. Watching the birth of new species is an exciting thing!

Bringing trees to their knees

The last month has been busy for the Arcata BLM forestry department (comprised mainly of the resident forester and his minion, me). After my mentor paved the way for months (by obtaining funding, getting the right forms to the right people, entertaining bids from contractors, and gaining public support), we have been bouncing around to evaluate the progress of 3 projects unfolding at the same time.

Common to all projects is the need for humans to (within the project boundaries) temporarily triumph over nature’s momentum, nudging ecosystems back onto the track from which human settlement derailed them. I have been awed by the range of methods humans have devised to make their mark on the landscape. I’ll focus on 2 of the projects here: thinning 140 acres of an overgrown Tanoak stand in the path of the spreading Sudden Oak Death pathogen, and restoring 18 acres of historic prairie that is well on the way to becoming a stand of towering Douglas Firs.

On the 140-acre thinning, the method employed was a 29-person hand crew. Steep slopes and specific contract conditions (20 foot leave tree spacing) precluded the use of machinery. These 29 guys (half with chainsaws, half piling the cut trees into burn piles) descended upon the forest with such fervor as I have never seen. Practically running from tree to tree, pile to pile, they worked with the utmost speed as safety would permit. Trees were falling in all directions and the piling crew was throwing wood everywhere, leaving thousands of tidy piles that will ideally be burned. They made me feel lazy in comparison to all the manual labor I’ve ever done in my life.

Before thinning.

Before thinning.


See the difference?

See the difference?

On the 18-acre prairie restoration, nearly all of the trees are going. While some delicacy is needed around the majestic Black and White Oaks that were nearly shaded out by Douglas Fir, cutting and extracting this forest requires heavy machinery. Let me introduce you to the danglehead processor, a 7,000 pound attachment for an excavator that: 1) grabs a tree, 2) cuts the tree, 3) lowers the tree to the ground, 4) slides up and down the span of the tree to knock off branches, 5) measures diameter, and 6) cuts the tree into perfect lengths for the sawmill and biomass electric plant. The danglehead can process 3 trees per minute.

This thing eats trees.

This thing eats trees.

During free time, last night I sat in the tops of skeleton Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine. How was it possible? I was walking on the BLM-managed Ma-le’l Dunes along the Pacific Ocean. The active dunes swallow this unique duo of conifers, leaving 2-foot-diameter trunks rooted in groundwater 20 feet below with only a handful of desperate knee-height needles that still manage to produce cones.

Let your mind be like a braided river’s channels, flowing from bank to bank. But when you focus, be like the Sun’s brilliant point of light as it’s about to melt into the horizon. And never be afraid to use metaphors that have certainly been used before!

We the people

I have come to the realization that land management is dependent on people management. To accomplish important conservation and resource management objectives, a thorough understanding of the science involved is essential. But land management on any significant scale is impossible without having the skill to engage people who don’t have the years of education that people in the BLM (and the Forest Service, Park Service, private conservation organizations, non-profit activist groups, etc.) often take for granted. Especially in the public sector, ecological expertise means nothing without the political skill to convince the public that we’re all working towards the same goal (as much as possible).

When I worked for the BLM in the heart of the Mojave, I was not confronted with this seemingly basic realization. The Needles office manages millions of continuous acres in one of the most sparsely populated areas in the nation. Neighbors are few and far between. But here in Arcata, with fragmented and dispersed BLM properties, it’s clear that the BLM does its best work when the neighbors are happy. A happy neighbor may be helpful. Heck, even Jesus recommended loving thy neighbor. And sometimes all it takes to please the public is a listening ear, a small price to pay to achieve work in an agency that manages 13% of the surface of the United States but can struggle on projects of 5, 50, or 500 acres. To vaguely quote my mentor, “A project can be a marathon. Too often people are unwilling to start running due to an argument about what will happen at mile 25.”

To mitigate the struggle, it’s also essential to be efficient with time and money that’s too often pressed. As the forestry projects are about to start, we’ve been conscious about focusing the contracted labor on areas where we’ll get the most “bang for the buck”. We don’t want to be “spinning our wheels” when we are the stewards of government funds. Adequate funding is hard to come by, so it’s important to make the most of it when it’s available. The ideal treatment nudges the land onto a course where future human intervention is unnecessary.

For a guy prone to periods of pessimism on the fate of humans and the environment, a certain project in particular has been unexpectedly inspiring. Our office is working towards a prairie restoration on an historic prairie that has become an overgrown Douglas Fir patch. There is some commercial potential of trees in the patch, but it’s mostly stuff that is traditionally unmarketable. However, a biomass-generated electric plant has recently opened in the area and they are interested in the shade-grown, scrawny trees that the timber industry has long considered junk. The BLM is selling these trees as biomass to help cover some of the costs of the prairie restoration. And as technology improves in the biomass conversion industry (eg. torrefaction and gasification), this will increasingly become an economically viable option. When the means to an end (habitat restoration) involve restoring energy independence to a small rural community, I’m on board.

Prairie and forest.

Prairie and forest.

Arcata, CA

My first week here in the Arcata, CA BLM office has been a great introduction to an ecosystem about which I know little. It is fun to experience mixing of unfamiliar excitement with familiar comforts. For example, this week I helped install tsunami warning signs on a BLM-managed trail to the ocean. A Minnesota native, I am used to being around water. But the possibility of a magnitude 9 earthquake leading to waves that could swallow most of a city is a new consideration. And while I’ll miss the blooming of springtime ephemerals in MN, in old growth redwood groves I have spotted western relatives of some of my favorites – trilliums and dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra formosa).

I am here as a forestry technician. A large part of my time will be spent on a Sudden Oak Death (due to a pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum) mitigation project. This project will involve cutting and piling tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) and California bay trees (Umbellularia californica) over 142 acres. The project will also reduce fuel loads and help restore the forest to historic densities.

Overall, I am happy to be in an unusually diverse region. Ecologically and geologically, there are so many different things happening in NW California! Tidepools, coastal marshes, endemic dune species, the largest redwoods, six significant rivers, sedimentary and volcanic mountain ranges, enough federally designated wilderness to fill a lifetime, and forest stands with 18 species of conifers are all easily accessible.

Happy exploring, wherever you are!


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Good Things About the Mojave

1) When I put cheese on my sandwich and spend the day in the field, the cheese is perfectly melted by lunchtime.

2) This is one of the least disturbed regions of the U.S. My job of monitoring wilderness characteristics has trained me to distinguish between natural and cultural influences on the landscape. While there is evidence of failed ranching and mining endeavors scattered among current infrastructure for resource (electricity, gas, and water) transport to cities, this landscape is huge. Solar projects and other developments seriously impact treasured species, but the landscape has survived in many places. I have climbed mountains, scanned over 30 miles in multiple directions, and not been able to detect a single human deed.

I shudder to think what life would be like here, with no air conditioned truck to take me back to an air conditioned office and house. I marvel that it has been done for generations.

Life vs. Unlife

Life is not always as it seems. However, if it seems like being a Wilderness Monitor in the Heart of the Mojave Desert would lead me to some awesome places, in this case life is exactly how it seems. The last comprehensive inventory for lands with wilderness characteristics in the Needles BLM office was 1979. I am providing an update to that inventory. Most recently I have been checking then-decided non-wilderness areas to determine if they have reverted to “wilderness”. On my travels I consider if an area is shaped primarily by the forces of nature, offers opportunities for solitude, and has potential for unconfined recreation.

My searches for wilderness have reinforced the fact that the Mojave is not as it seems to culture’s mind’s eye. Even in the hottest and sunniest hours of one of U.S.A.’s hottest and driest ecosystems the air is full of birdsong, bugsong, bees, nonchalance, and spiderwebs. The air is less full of pollen these days, but even cursory glances across the rocky ground reveal tiny Fabacea flowering (with no help from recent airborne water; it has been over a month since a sporadic rain fell over this vast landscape). As I nibble sweet Palo Verde seeds, I reason that some important lesson should be learned from this repeatedly demonstrated dedicated desert patience. The desert chooses life.

A Wild Time

I was hired as a Recreation Technician, to provide field and GIS support in the Needles, CA BLM field office. Here the recreation branch also manages 1.4 million acres of wilderness. For this past month a more accurate title for my job would be ‘Wilderness Monitor’. Long story short: I have been making sure the wilderness is still wild.

The Wilderness Act (1964) defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The wilderness areas in the Needles field office share histories of varied uses including mining, military training, Native American habitation, wood harvesting, and off-highway vehicle (OHV) use. For the most part these activities stopped after wilderness designation. Unfortunately some unauthorized use (mainly OHV intrusion) continues in the wilderness areas, which undermines the unique opportunities for unaltered ecosystem function and human solitude. So, I have been visiting areas that have high biological/historical interest, or have experienced the most frequent intrusions. At these sites I check if people are respecting the most recently erected.

My excursions into the wildernesses have aligned with the purposes of the other CLM interns here. I have been helping the Seeds of Success intern (Lara) with plant scouting and seed collecting. Even in this unusually dry year (in the words of a seasoned local, “drier than a skeleton fart”) there have been plenty of wildflowers to appease my eyes. Also, I have been accompanying our wildlife biology intern (Alicia) who has been assessing wildlife use and human safety of abandoned mine sites.

In the near future I will be investigating current non-wilderness sites to assess potentiality for either: a) energy development projects or b) designation as areas with wilderness characteristics. I like my job.