Paleo-endemics and Planning

We enjoyed a few snow showers in March, but by noon the following day it all had melted to make way for springtime growth. Our mountaintop flowers have been popping up all over the place, nurtured by abundant moisture and sunshine. I’ve discovered a previously unfamiliar species almost every field day over the past few weeks. This recognition has been important as I finish out my restoration document, which recommends local native species for revegetation. Now that I can put a name to a face, so to speak, I can more accurately write about floral characteristics.


Of the plants described in my document, none are more unique than those comprising the Pebble Plain vegetation community. Pebble Plain is made up of miniature, low-growing species often with highly reflective, succulent features–all special adaptations to harsh environmental conditions like high clay content soils, frequent frost heave, extreme soil temperature variation, and reduced soil moisture. Until very recently in the season, Pebble Plain, to me, resembled a wet, rocky, mud flat. But, since spring sprung, I’ve quickly come to appreciate this habitat for the exciting biological community it is. Pebble plain is found only on the SBNF and adjacent private lands, and while resident plant species are abundant within their specific habitat, these areas are very narrowly distributed on the Forest overall leading to the designation of a few characteristic plants under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).




These plants were described by our district botanist at a Big Bear Sierra Club chapter event as “paleo-endemics,” meaning they persist only in select locations, surviving as relicts of earlier, further ranging populations. Closely related species are found in alpine zones of the Sierra Mountains and Baja California. Many, many years ago when the climate was colder we can infer that these populations were connected. Today they make their last disjointed stand at high elevations.

The archetypal example of Pebble Plain habitat is located just outside the city of Big Bear Lake near a residential neighborhood. It was here that I happily observed Douglas’ violet (Viola douglassi), Alkali draba, (Cusickiella douglasii), and Parish’s rockcress (Boechera parishii) in full bloom, and eagerly await the flowering of the endangered Southern mountain buckwheat (Eriogonum kennedyi var. austromonatum), and ash gray paintbrush (Castilleja cinerea).

This past week I took a break from botany for a training opportunity “down the hill” in San Diego, a much appreciated component of the CLM internship program. I chose to attend the Association of Environmental Professionals 2016 Conference. While most of my post-grad work experience has involved botany, ecology and restoration, my educational background centered on natural resources planning. Many of the lectures offered at this conference addressed the intersections between these disciplines via Conservation Planning.

The first talk, titled “Conservation Planning & Implementation in San Diego,” discussed the impressively organized and highly collaborative conservation efforts developed to serve the vulnerable flora and fauna of the sprawling metropolis that is greater San Diego. Speakers from the private and public sectors discussed their experiences formulating and implementing the regional Management and Monitoring Plan (SDMMP) and Management Strategic Plan (MSP) that falls beneath. The MSP categorizes and prioritizes species and vegetation communities, identifies geographic locations for management actions, provides specific timelines for implementation, and established a process for coordination. According to the speakers, while these plans are complicated and require long-term commitments, they are working to enhance habitat in an area under a great deal of pressure!


A forum later that day discussed “How Wind Energy Development is Navigating Complex Avian Regulatory Requirements with Technological Advances.” We were taught about the semi-ambiguous regulatory framework currently involved in permitting wind development in relation to birds, namely the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). A representative from the consulting firm RES group presented on IdentiFlight, a promising new technology that can identify bird species from 1,000 meters away! If it turns out the be a large raptor, the computer will switch off the turbines quickly enough to avoid a collision.

April will probably be the last full month of my internship so I’m looking forward to successfully completing my projects and documents, learning more species of Forest vegetation in their greenest, liveliest, blooming forms, and exploring more of beautiful southern California. Thanks for reading!

Brandon Drucker
Mountaintop Ranger District
San Bernardino National Forest
Fawnskin, California

Workhorse Species and the Superbloom

Much of my time over the past month has been devoted to the development of a document tentatively titled “Work Horse Species for the Restoration of Disturbed Lands and Pollinator Habitat.” I bet you’re at the edge of your seat! What even is a work horse species? Why combine disturbed lands and pollinators? Well…

Long before I arrived, restoration staff started on a simpler report intended to recommend which native plant species to use in revegetation efforts across the forest. The SBNF covers so much ground and so many different varieties of habitat that it’s important to set some rules. This way we ensure plants added to restoration sites are adapted to survive local conditions and contribute to healthy, resilient ecosystems. These hardy, recommended plants are dubbed “workhorse species.”

Then, in May 2015 the White House released their “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” The Forest Service Region 5 (California) also generated a Pollinator Best Management Practices report. Together, these directives urge Federal land managers like the SBNF restoration team to support the health of pollinator populations in response to the massive honeybee, monarch butterfly, and other pollinator population crashes that have occurred over the past few decades. Considering these bugs are responsible for the reproduction of around 80% of the world’s flowering plants, including most of our food crops, this should concern us all.

Basically, whenever a restoration project is planned on the forest we want pollinator habitat to be a primary consideration. Fortunately, pollinator habitat enhancement and disturbed lands restoration are complementary activities! Several of the workhorse species used in restoration are already favored by pollinators. Eriogonum, Penstemon, and Encelia, for example. Our program is identifying additional species important to pollinators as sources of nectar and larvae food. Milkweed, aka Asclepias, is one, which I discussed in my last post.

Besides writing, I’ve been enjoying lots of time in the field. A few weeks ago I helped plant a rather dramatic restoration site known as the Summit Staging Area—dramatic for the view of the San Gabriel Mountains as well as the method of restoration.


This lot had been used as a “staging area” where off highway vehicle (OHV) riders could unload their quads, dirtbikes, etc. and get ready to ride the trails. Sadly, many riders decided to drive off the footprint of the staging area and onto the hillside, running over quality habitat. To prevent this continued degradation, the restoration program called for the placement of boulders around the perimeter of the lot and “chunking” of the damaged area outside. Chunking involves the creation of hills and dips over the ground making it essentially impossible for OHV riders to drive across. According to staff, the contractors chunked this site considerably more than the norm with taller hills and deeper dips.

So, we knocked those tall hills down a peg! We used the excess soil to fill the dips and create a perfect bed for the planting of native Eriogonum, Ericameria, and Malacothamnus from our greenhouse.

Outside of work, in mid-February, I took advantage of a three-day weekend to explore Death Valley. I couldn’t have accidentally picked a more super time, for the national park was experiencing a super bloom. There is only one big bloom like this every decade or so. Thanks, El Nino. I took literally hundreds of photos of the wildflowers. The desert is colorful, immense, and humbling.

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I take the GRE next weekend. Too bad they care more about geometry and vocabulary than plant ID. Wish me luck!

Brandon Drucker

Mountaintop Ranger Station
San Bernardino National Forest
Fawnskin, California

Unauthorized Trails and Asclepias


Time flies when you’re an intern! Apparently.

A month has passed since I began work with the San Bernardino National Forest. The snow melted. Then it snowed again. Somewhere in between things picked up for us.

The SBNF restoration staff tackle an incredible number of responsibilities, and we’ve been busy learning how projects are carried out and prioritized on what is, apparently, one of the most heavily utilized patches of public land in the country. Every weekend the (human) population explodes in Big Bear. Thousands come from all over southern California to snowboard, ski, hike, climb, fish, and drive through the mud. While most forest users treat the area with respect, others do not, and thus restoration is necessary.

One of the most common and damaging illegal practices on the forest is the creation of unauthorized off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails. Many miles of legal “green sticker” routes already traverse the forest. I’ve driven on them. They’re beautiful. They climb stunning ridgelines and cross desert streams. The Forest Service and partnering organization the Southern California Mountains Foundation (SCMF) has worked to carefully designate and manage these routes. But, instead of sticking to them, some users drive off and pass into wilderness. Where one ATV, dirt bike, or jeep goes, others are bound to follow. Before long, there are miles and miles of crushed native plants and otherwise damaged habitat. In the desert where plant growth is incredibly slow and other pressures abound, these ecosystems could take extreme lengths of time to naturally recover. Indeed, they may never return to a previous state on their own.


The SBNF restoration program receives funding from the state of California to close off unauthorized trails and attempt revegetation. Following closure, restoration sites require years of monitoring to ensure drivers stay away and plants grow in properly. The program utilizes a small number of staff and volunteers to cover a lot of ground. It’s interesting to hear which methods of closure work depending on locations and varieties of use. For example, heavier cable fences are used to cut off high traffic routes, while T-post fences or even scattered tree branches are sufficient on smaller paths. Some unauthorized trails are allowed to passively revegetate, while others are seeded and others still planted with native plants grown in our greenhouse. Seed is always collected from plants already occurring nearby. In many cases, these methods have proven remarkably successful.

In the future, many of the plants in our restoration greenhouse will be grown with the dual purpose of promoting the health of pollinating insects! The program recently received funding for the enhancement of pollinator habitat, which is a subject I’m very much interested in and also one of the reasons I was so excited to join the team here. This work is supported by the National Pollinator Strategy–organized and endorsed by the White House! It is also supported by regional Forest Service best management practice guidelines. I’m happy to see pollinators recognized as valuable on these significant governmental levels! A few weeks back we started planting a few hundred milkweed seeds. Milkweeds, of course, are the primary food source for monarch butterfly larvae. Three local species were planted in small pots and “flats”: Asclepias californica, A. fascicularis, and A. eriocarpa. Thousands more are to be planted in the coming weeks.


Speaking of plants and pollinators, I’ve also started work on a major update of a restoration document intended to guide the revegetation of disturbed sites within the various “vegetation communities” of the SBNF. This “work horse” species document describes the forest’s many varied habitats, the expertly recommended “work horse” species to be utilized in their recovery, and the specific value of these species to pollinators. Pretty cool!


I’m very much looking forward to growing more familiar with these unique vegetation communities and pollinator ecology in general. I’m also excited to see the Asclepias seedlings grow up. One day they’ll be Asclepias adults, and I’m hopeful to see a few out-planted before the end of my internship. Finally, outside of work, I’m taking every opportunity to explore my surroundings in southern California. Visits to Joshua Tree NP, Death Valley, the Salton Sea, Los Angeles, and San Diego are on the horizon!

Note: I would like to apologize to the good people of the Inland Empire for misspelling San Bernardino three times in my previous post.  That semi-silent R threw me for a loop. Won’t happen again!

Brandon Drucker

Mountaintop Ranger District
San BernaRdino National Forest
Fawnskin, California



Big Bear, Bigger Snow in the SoCal Mountains


Before I moved to Big Bear Lake for the CLM internship, I lived in Washington state for eight months. Before that, I studied environmental science in northern California for four years. The epic California drought is a common topic of conversation among my environmentally mindful circle of friends, coworkers, and teachers. With very, very good reason. California is the most populous state, and delivers a majority of the thirsty produce and meats and other foods desired by people all over the country (and the world). The drought here affects most everybody, and the establishment of new priorities and solutions in the face of this new climate regime is essential.

During the few weeks prior to my internship, I drove the full spectrum of the state in terms of moisture. Beginning on the North Coast, under the noble redwoods, I soaked up steady rain showers with college friends. Down in the Bay Area, a few pitiful sprinkles fell on the green-brown hills. Further south, on the Central Coast near San Luis Obispo, little more than a few live oaks survive to dot the golden hills. Another 200 miles south on Highway 101 the gold gives way to intense human development, palm trees, and the gray-green of coast chaparral. Finally, I turned east from Los Angeles towards the vast Inland Empire for the last leg of my trip. Along the road through Riverside and San Bernadino, I took note of the truly arid landscape. I’d never traveled this far south on the West Coast. Scrub, cacti, and yucca are the status quo here. I switched on Mountain At My Gates by Foals to magnify the montane vibes, and ascended into San Bernadino National Forest in my old Suabru.


Passing by the first National Forest sign I wondered if someone had made an egregious error designating this a forest. Where were the trees? It was just too hot, too dry, too sparse here to support a true forest ecosystem. But as I climbed another hundred feet and then another, the landscape rapidly transitioned. Hello trees. And hello everyone from SoCal. E v e r y o n e. Traffic up the mountain slowed to a crawl. My supervisor warned me this was a heavily utilized forest. She warned me it’d be a good idea to consider alternate routes on New Year’s Day. But, sometimes I mistakenly place too much trust in Google Maps, so spent an extra two hours in bumper to bumper conditions en route to Big Bear Lake. For all the roads in the world to crawl along, though, I was grateful this was mine. The brigade of southern Californians and I twisted and turned from dramatic mountain vista to vista, alongside diverse, beautiful plant communities. At last, I reached the lake and my new home.

I’d chosen to arrive a few days early so that I could properly settle in and explore the new digs. As it turned out, there was a trailhead just outside the front door of my government barracks that connects to the PCT and tops Mt. Bertha, which offers spectacular views of the lake and surrounding mountains. I seized upon the convenience, and made it to the peak in about two hours. I look to my left, lodgepole pine. To my right, juniper. Seems about right. I look down. Cactus. Growing straight out of the snow! What is this place? I share a photo with a few of my friends who assert the cactus is actually a set of dinosaur scales. Hmm. I can see it. But the naming scientist thought the species more closely resembled a beavertail. Therefore, beavertail prickly pear, Opuntia basilaris. While snow did cover some shadowed spots on the trail where I found this cactus, along the roads, and by the ski slopes, the majority of the area was dry. Like the rest of California, right? Not for long!


Two days into my internship, I was enjoying the company of a savvy USFS crew, I’d completed the bulk of my entrance paperwork, and spent some time transplanting baby buckwheat in a delightful greenhouse. Then the heavens opened up, and out spilled two feet of heavy, wet, snow. In southern California! This was a great thing. One storm will not cancel a four year drought. But snowpack will provide some degree of relief to the landscape and the community. The snow, however, also presents its share of challenges to a USFS district office complex.


Our priorities shifted from more paperwork to snow removal. The greenhouse was coated with a growing layer of frozen precipitation. We needed to relieve this weight from the roof of the structure, so got to scraping with a very long shovel. Fortunately, the other intern and I both grew up in New England and are no strangers to shoveling. It’d been a while since I’d seen this amount of snow, though, and it’d been a while for the locals as well. A couple informed us this was their first “big snow” in 3-4 years. The mountains and trees covered in glistening white is a spectacular sight, especially in contrast to the sharp blue mountain skies. The Forest Service vehicles and my Subaru, however, I prefer snow-free.


For the remainder of our time, the other new intern (the incredibly accomplished Marta) and I attended an informative meeting between our SBNF restoration team and non-profit partner, the Southern California Mountains Foundation. It was interesting to learn the ways in which these two groups of highly committed conservationists and educators work together to achieve forest restoration. Both rely largely on grant funding to carry out an array of impressive projects within one of the most heavily utilized stretches of public land in the country. So glad I took that grant writing class in college!

We also got to enjoy a bit more time inside the greenhouse, which remains humid and warm despite the chilly snow outside. SBNF collects seed and propagates several dozen species of native vegetation for out-planting at resto sites all over the forest—grasses, forbs, cacti, trees, and yucca, among many others. My favorite thing about the Big Bear area and San Bernadino National Forest so far is the dramatically different types of vegetation that grow side by side, and the variety of diverse habitats that exist in close proximity to one another. In fact, SBNF is part of a bioregion designated by Conservation International as one of 25 global biodiversity hotspots, demonstrating “high vegetation diversity, unique ecological communities found nowhere else, and many endemic species…” How fortunate I am to be stationed here for the next several months in this special corner of California. More soon!

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