Summer of Love…and plants

Field work is really hard! Especially in the desert!

Sometimes it feels like the desert is playing tricks on me, warping my perception. It has been a struggle finding viable seed to collect for our seed banking efforts. Many of the plants that are most important for post-wildfire restoration have produced little to no seed this year.

About a month or so ago, Mike and I took a walk through the site of the recent Long Valley fire. It was pretty spooky. There was no sign of any herbaceous plants and all that remained of the shrubs were blackened twigs. At first glance, the area looked like a desolate wasteland. Then I looked closer. Ants scrambled around the charred gravel. A lone mushroom stood, flushed by all the water from the firefighting effort. Desert peach sprouted from the bases of charred bushes.

What had appeared to me as a lifeless landscape was actually full of vitality and regeneration. It reminded me that the apocalyptic rhetoric that we conservationists often use to galvanize support for our cause can overlook the innate regenerative potential of threatened ecosystems. How often have seed banks been billed as “doomsday vaults”? I think that this sort of apocalyptic thinking is not only destructively pessimistic, but also endows us conservationists with a false sense of self-importance. As soon as we start believing that the earth is dying because of us, we start believing that we alone can save it. Not to say that we haven’t caused irreparable damage to this planet. But I think it is important to acknowledge that ecosystems are incredibly resilient and that they will recover from our impact regardless of whether we welcome a few sacred species onto our ark. Granted, this recovery might not take place on a timescale that is acceptable to us as users of the land. It will probably be millennia before natural antagonists evolve to put a check on invasive organisms.

On a lighter note, I went to Lake Tahoe this past weekend. Such beautiful, such wow, such boats. We went on a gorgeous hike to the top of Twin Peaks, visited an “authentic Scandinavian castle” and swam to a small island in the middle of the lake.

Why Mast Rd. is a must-walk

As we are more than halfway through our seed collecting internship, I have once again revised my list of favorites among the sites in which we collect, and Mast Rd Natural Area in Epping, NH has consistently been near the top.

Mast Rd Natural Area is turning into quite a friendly space for the weekend hiker. It is a forested site containing a few wetland areas and a meadow and is currently undergoing restoration to make it more accessible to pedestrians. When we first visited the site, the felled trunks and the tire marks revealed that Mast Rd Natural Area used to be an ATV trail system. The construction has been apparent with each visit and the trails are starting to take shape; gravel has been lain and bridges have been constructed over less than solid land.

Both the weekend hiker and the seasoned field worker will find plenty of fascinating sights here. That is part of the beauty of Mast Rd Natural Area. Though New Hampshire rises to mountain elevations further inland, this natural area is rather flat, providing for an easy walk that will allow hikers to focus on what they see along the trail instead of whether they will reach the end.

As seed collectors, we love this site. We have made thirteen collections here to date, which speaks to the range of diversity among the habitats that support a variety of native plant populations. The Carex species are well represented, with different ones growing in different areas, depending on soil wetness. We have collected Sparganium americanum and Eleocharis obtusa, which generally grow in standing water. We have also collected species that are typically found in bogs with acidic and moist, spongy soil, like Rhynchospora capitellata and Triadenum virginicum. We will probably collect a grass growing in a drier part of Mast Rd Natural Area next month, Schizachyrium scoparium. Also, we never made an official collection of Vaccinium angustifolium or Vaccinium corymbosum, but we taste-tested these highbush and lowbush blueberries to our heart’s content and mostly agreed that the highbush is more delicious. You too can pick wild blueberries at Mast Rd Natural Area in the summer months.

Bog habitat at Mast Rd. PC: E. Tokarz

Every time we have been to Mast Rd Natural Area, we have also noted a spectacular nature sighting. Once we saw a grasshopper molt its exoskeleton. It unfurled a large abdomen as it waddled away from its skin, its back legs still glued together. We gaped in wonder at the shell it left behind, which looked to be less than half its new size. Another time, we nearly stepped on a quail. It sat unfazed by our near step as we reached for some Scirpus, seeming to be more curious than concerned. We all agree there is always more to explore and to notice than we have time for, and that we can best appreciate this natural area on foot.

The exoskeleton of the grasshopper at Mast Rd. Natural Area, NH. PC: E. Tokarz

P.S. This site has a bonus. It is only ten minutes away from the Lindt chocolate factory outlet store. You’ve never seen so many truffles in your life!

Aspen, aspen, and more aspen!


A room with a view. The red tundra in the Denali National Park backcountry.


September has been a month of change. In the span of a short couple of weeks, the landscape has completely changed color. Snow has beginning to creep down the mountain slopes. The tundra has transformed red from the dwarf birch and the boreal forest has become spotted with brilliant yellow from the aspen. Having gone to school in Vermont (aka where leaf peeping is a sport), fall foliage is a pretty big deal to me and I must say Alaska did not disappoint.

Besides helping out the recreation crew, working on my plant collection, and continuing to inventory forest resources out at Tanacross, I also had the opportunity of attending the Cook Inlet Chapter of the Society of American Forester’s Aspen Workshop. It was three-days jam-packed with learning all about the spectacular species that I have worked with so much in the past three months here. Though I pass by these trees on a daily basis, I honestly hadn’t scratched the surface of how important this species is ecologically.

My main “Take Aways” from the workshop:

  1. Alaska is still truly the last frontier when it comes to studying plant diseases! There is still so much to learn!  

The USFS Plant Pathologist Lori Winton led us in a field exploration of the aspen running canker, a fungus which has infected 70% of aspen in sampled stands and is basically a death sentence for the tree. Even experts are baffled by this fungus because no reliable fruiting bodies could be found to make a positive identification. The spread of this fungus is advancing quite quickly across the interior. On one of our many field trips, we got to observe the canker in action. After scraping back the thin bark of some of the young trees, you can actually see the line between dead and live tissue where the canker has infected.

The running canker itself! Note the cut in the distinct line between the dead cambium (tissue) where the canker has infected versus the yellowish green living tissue.

Lucky 13. My fellow CLM intern Rob Tepperburg discovered the sunken in sign of the canker on this young aspen!

USFS Plant Pathologist Lori Winton and CLM Intern Jacob DeKraai examine an inoculated aspen for signs of the mysterious running canker!

2. Just because there is no large scale timber industry does not mean that forestry is a thing of the past.

Yes, most of the mills are inactive and one of the most profitable wood products is firewood. However, after learning from state foresters, researchers, and silviculturalists, forestry projects are alive and well here! Some areas of state land are currently being managed to increase aspen response which can promote wildlife species that depend on early successional growth like ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse. We got to visit some treatment sites where crazy equipment like roller-choppers were used to increase aspen regeneration and promote grouse and moose habitat. Another vastly undervalued use for aspen is its potential for biomass energy. The local Tok School has a wood boiler that they use as both a heat and power source. Though currently only spruce is generally used, there is a potential that aspen could also be used in the right mixture to help heat the school.

A massive roller-chopper! This piece of machinery is pulled behind a dozer and often filled with antifreeze to increase weight. The blades chop and break apart larger stems and can cut into the ground to help scarify the soil and roots.Long story short: Since aspen is a clonal species, if you cut the mature trees in a stand and cut into their vast root network, younger stems will sprout from the response in the growth hormone auxin.

A disc-trencher- another site preparation tool to help scarify and break up the soil and roots to increase the response of aspen regeneration.


Bear markings on an aspen. Bears are said to mark their territory by cutting into trees. Aspen’s thin bark makes them an especially good choice for showing other bears who’s part of the woods they’ve just entered.

3. Cooperation Counts! Land managers and scientists are a huge asset to one another.

One final take-away message I learned from the workshop was just how incredibly valuable interdisciplinary communication can be. From the get-go, Dr. Paul C. Rogers, an aspen connoisseur and creator of the Western Aspen Alliance (WAA) stressed the importance of managers and scientists working together in a close relationship. The purpose of the WAA is to produce sound scientific publications that can keep land managers up to date so they can transfer this knowledge to action in the field. The compartmentalization of disciplines from forestry, wildlife, ecology, entomology, pathology, etc. is in the past! I believe the most valuable science is applied and the most valuable land management is guided by science! It’s a win-win! It was amazing to see the discourse out in the field among the group of professionals from a whole suite of different disciplines. You can really tell that workshops like this one really help get their gears turning and allow for future partnerships down the road.


A sea of yellow! A successful influx of young aspen coming in after last year’s roller-chopping treatment, part of the state’s grouse project.


After the workshop, it was great to go back to work and actually take what we were learning and apply it to our inventory project. We started noticing canker right off the bat in the aspen we were coring and also saw a bunch of grouse busy at work in the aspen stands we are working in. What a month September has been in the 49th state!

Running canker in a core of an aspen?

Until next time,

Katlyn Williard

CLM Intern, Glennallen, AK Field Office


The aurora borealis!!! Spotted in Tok, AK


It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Fall. It is truly the most wonderful time of year. Not because of the pumpkin-spiced everything (which I believe to be an overrated economical addition to the season, not to mention I am allergic to cinnamon). Rather, it is because of the warm autumn yellows, reds, and oranges, the cool, crisp air and frost on the tips of the mountains, and the feeling of accomplishment after a busy field season.

Fall colors presenting themselves and tips of mountain tops white with new snow in the distance, near Berthoud Pass, Colorado. Photo: B. Palmer.

Speaking of which, it has been one whirlwind of a season! I have seen so many fantastic places, and have been able to get some marvelous work experience. I am honored to have been a part of the T&E monitoring projects of the Colorado BLM as well as a small part in Seeds of Success.

Just weeks ago we finished up our last full (not to mention hot) week of field work from Montrose, Colorado. Our crew went to check out the rare deserty-endemic, Eriogonum peniliophylum. Its demography is very restricted to Mancos Shale scrubland, only found in this little area on the western slope of Colorado. We could easily see the landscape was parched, as we drove to monitoring sites that looked like they haven’t gotten any rain in months! The little buckwheat plants were holding on though; despite their ramshackle appearances and low reproductive numbers, they seemed to be doing all right, at least from second glance.

The drab colors of drought – grays and browns oh my. I don’t think I saw a single green color those few days we were out there! Photo: B. Palmer

A very dried out – but still living – Eriogonum penilophyllum. This was a normal sight those few days we monitored this plant.

On this same trip I also took part in some point-in-time counts for Sclerocactus glaucus. This was one of the first things we monitored in the season, so it was neat to go back in the end of the season to see these little cacti again – feels like I have just about come full circle. My mentor wanted to include landscape aspects of this species in the yearly review of the cactus, and this meant including as many point-in-time counts as possible. To jog your memory, the point-in-time helps calculate the density of the populations with a high confidence interval, and compare populations to each other to understand what is going on with those populations at a landscape level. The multiple point-in-time plots we calculated varied greatly, but now we are a step closer at understanding landscape population levels, and hopefully can use these data to understand how it may change in future years.

Although we saw Sclerocactus glaucus in the spring with cute little flowers, with some difficulty we were able to find these in the wrong time of the season for the point-in-time counts…little cacti pups and seedlings included! . Photo: B. Palmer

The crews setting up a point-in-time for Sclerocactus glaucus. We met up with seasonal workers from the Uncompahgre (Montrose) Field Office and Grand Junction field office, all of which have been helping out with finding Sclerocactus glaucus populations. Photo by: B. Palmer

Of course, I have been able to make a few more SOS collections in between helping with the Threatened and Endangered (T&E) plant monitoring. Between T&E and SOS, it has been a very busy season and difficult to get a lot of collections, but I am glad I have been able to contribute even at least a little. It has been very rewarding to go out in the field and see the plethora of seeds that have so much potential, yet at the same time, I am a little disappointed that I couldn’t get to them all on my own. Of course, I hope to have a few more collections made in the coming weeks, before the first freeze on the Front Range.

A dried-out and ready -to-collect population of Orthocarpus luteus, Yellow owl-clover. One of many SOS collections I was fortunate enough in getting.  Photo: B. Palmer

With the exception of a few cool season grass collections (and hopefully a sagebrush or two), as the days shorten, the colors change, and the morning air becomes brisk, the field season comes to a close. One of our last days out, the Colorado State Office Crew drove up to Rifle, Colorado. We were welcomed with changing colors of the Aspens on our way there, and yet again, I noticed the field season coming around full-circle. The first trip we took was to monitor a milkvetch (Astragalus debequaeus) in the same area of Rifle, Colorado, Anvil Points. And yet here we were just a few days ago, on one of the last trips of the season to monitor Penstemon debilis. On our way to the site I was pleasantly surprised with one more SOS collection, a native thistle only found in two counties of Colorado.

Anvil Points, a location of an old, abandoned oil shale mine, and also home to many Colorado native and endemic plants. Photo: B. Palmer

Instead of helping out with the Penstemon debilis monitoring plot (thankfully there was lots of help), I decided to take advantage of the hundreds of fruiting Cirsium barnebyi that lined the road and slopes on the way up the side of the shale mountain. Even though I prickled and poked my hands continuously while grabbing the heads, I am happy to make SOS collections when and where I can! Photo: B. Palmer

I believe I took a picture of a similar sight months ago back in May, marking my first day of field season, and this as one of my last of 2017. Photo: B. Palmer

As I said before, it is the most wonderful time of year. I love autumn, and everything that goes with it – the soft, warm colors, the crisp morning air, the season of hot cocoa (and yes, pumpkin-spiced lattes). But this year, it includes the feeling of a successful, accomplished season – like I have been able to contribute, even at least a little, to the world. Before I wanted into botany, I previously worked as a line cook, with the goal of becoming a chef. I can honestly say I never felt the way about that job as I currently do now. I love this line of work, and hope I can continue down this path in the future. What does the future hold? Who knows – I will be taking the GRE in the coming months, and applying to graduate school for either plant conservation of plant phylogenetics, so I imagine going back to school may be near. What I do know now is that the CLM has been a wonderful program to be involved in, and I couldn’t have asked for a better crew to work with this last summer.

These guys are intelligent, hard working, and good sports! I have learned to much from all of them, and I am happy to have been able to work with them for the 2017 field season! From left: BLM State Botanist Carol Dawson, former CLM intern and BLM contractor Phil Krening, CLM intern Taryn Contento, and of course, myself.

Thanks for an incredible journey CLM!

-Brooke Palmer, Colorado State Office BLM