Conifer Endemism on the Central California Coast

Original Publication DATE: 3/29/2013 

I have always been a fan of the opportunists. If I had to pick a favorite bird it would be the noble turkey vultures—who soar thermals from coast to coast, contemplating a smorgasbord of fetid and rotten treats for daily sustenance. Douglas-firs are one of the most ubiquitous western conifers—taking purchase on high mountain peaks, coastal sand dunes, temperate rainforests, and sterile serpentine soils. However, some species are so specialized that, without proper and specific biotic and abiotic interactions, they would have long-gone extinct or never evolved at all.

In ecology, the term endemism defines when an organism is unique to a certain region like an island or mountain range. Endemic species are either newly evolved to fit a changing landscape (neoendemic) or a relict of a once broader existence, now restricted to a smaller region (paleoendemic). Neoendemics are species that have adaptively radiated from an older one through vicariance–with an ecology sculpted by edaphic, climatic, and topographic isolation in “recent” history. Relative to other conifers, some of California’s cypresses are an examples of this type of endemism. Through microsite isolation new species have evolved from a common ancestor where new traits are selected through ecological release to fit specific environments. Paleoendemics, like the Redwoods, Monterey cypress, Monterey pine and Santa Lucia fir once had broader ranges but are now restricted, through climatic changes, to environments which mimic those of the ancient past.

California Central Coast Conifer Endemism
The central coast of California is home to numerous endemic plants, including 5 conifers. The following will take you on a journey into one of the endemic conifer hotspots along the Pacific Slope.

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18th Conifer in the Miracle Mile!

Original Post DATE: 2/10/2013

The internet is an amazing thing. It opens up lines of communication that were unheard of in the past. Case in point–I got an email from Richard Moore who lives in Callahan, California. He knows the Salmon-Trinity Mountains well, as he has been exploring them since he was a young boy in the early 50’s. It turns out that in the early 1980’s he discovered a small stand of western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) in the Russian Wilderness. He knew about the famous square mile wherein 17 conifers species had been found. He also figured the junipers he discovered were within–or at least very close to–that carefully shaped square mile. He had told John Sawyer in person about 2 years ago; but never relayed the location of the trees. John and I made the trek into Sugar Creek and I climbed to the ridge trying to predict where the juniper were – and missed them by a few hundred yards and a wall of granite. Now I was back to find the 18th Conifer in the Miracle Mile.

Sugar Creek
I was within 200 yards (just around this granitic corner) of finding the junipers on my last visit to the miracle mile.

Turns out, in the summer of 2012 his brother bought him a copy of Conifer Country and he was re-inspired to try to get the word out about his discovery. He borrowed his son’s camera (which he readily admits to have taken some poor photos), put together a PDF with the pictures and GPS coordinates with the help of his son, and also got that file in an email to me. What we now have is the evidence (minus a specimen) of the newest addition to the botanical legacy of the Klamath Mountains. I plan to meet Richard this summer and collect some specimens for the Humboldt State University Herbarium. Below is the link to the file with photos and GPS coordinates that Richard sent to me.

Richard Moore collecting a specimen of Juniperus occidentalis in the Miracle Mile - the18th conifer!
Richard Moore collecting a specimen of Juniperus occidentalis in the Miracle Mile – the 18th conifer!

A list of conifers within the Miracle Mile:

  1. foxtail pine
  2. whitebark pine
  3. western white pine
  4. Jeffrey pine
  5. ponderosa pine
  6. lodgepole pine
  7. sugar pine
  8. white fir
  9. Shasta fir
  10. subalpine fir
  11. Engelmann spruce
  12. Brewer spruce
  13. mountain hemlock
  14. Douglas-fir
  15. Pacific yew
  16. incense-cedar
  17. common juniper
  18. western juniper

My Side of a Mountain

Original Publication DATE: 8/3/2012

On average, air temperatures decrease 500 times faster over altitudinal gradients than latitudinal gradients in North America (MacAuthor 1972). So, for example, traveling 150 miles north in North America approximates a decrease in temperature comparable to gaining 1600 feet of altitude. (O’Donnell 2003). This also means that altitudinal vegetation zones in the mountains of North America are 500 times narrower than latitudinal zones–what is created in this climatic scenario are the quentessential microsites. But there are other factors at play in the temperate coastal environments of the Klamath Mountains. Altitudinal generalizations are often exaggerated to the untrained eye because as one climbs skyward a stark landscape appears as ancient ultramafic and mafic rocks become more common, and restrict plant growth. This nurtures the feeling of subalpine–even below 7,000′ at a latitude of 42o N.
Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi), serpentine ridgeline, and sunset…

The northern portion of the Siskiyou Wilderness represents an area of great botanical diversity resulting from its unique geographic position (proximity to the coast and extreme vertical relief) and complex and diverse geologic composition. Chester A. Ground (1972) identified 343 species of plants in 3 square miles around the mountain my college buddies and I decided to climb in late July 2012.  Just like my childhood fictional hero Sam Gribley, we escaped to a place near and dear to my heart, and–though not for an entire winter–for enough time to share space and time with the unique and diverse biota of the Klamath Mountans. We were in for a treat as the weather was cool and clear, plants were in bloom, and wildlife was active.

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John O. Sawyer – Kin to the Earth

Original Publication DATE: 9/9/2012

This story also appeared in EcoNews and Darlingtonia.

Dancing with raindrops from car to porch on any number of oft-spectacular Humboldt Bay days, I was hungry for a lunch date. As I shook my hands dry, the push of a bell initiated the shuffle of feet, a crack of the door—and soon after—a long, sincere, chuckle. The opening door revealed a smile to go with the laughter. It was the same way every time, and I always loved it. John’s spirit was contagious and he always brightened my day.

Hiking on Limestone Ridge in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

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The Cry of the Wilderness (and C. nootkatensis)

Original Publication DATE: 10/27/2012

“Wilderness has a deceptive concreteness at first glance.  The difficulty is that while the word is a noun it acts like an adjective.  There is no specific material object that is wilderness.  The term designates a quality ( as the ‘-ness’ suggests) that produces a certain mood or feeling in a given individual and, as a consequence, may be assigned by that person to specific place.  Because of this subjectivity a universally acceptable definition of wilderness is elusive.  One man’s wilderness may be another’s roadside picnic… Wilderness, in short, is so heavily freighted with meaning of a personal, symbolic, and changing kind as to resist easy definition.”
                  —Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash, third edition; pub. Yale Univ. Press, 1967.

Siskiyou Wilderness | fall 2012

My expectations for wilderness wavers too. As I sit at home with my creature comforts I hope that others are out enjoying the majesty of the wilds–connecting with the natural world and progressing as stewards. When my turn comes to plan a wilderness adventure, destinations are chosen based on where I will find solitude. This was the original, anthropocentric idea behind wilderness–a place that would retain primeval character and guarantee solitude. I am a proponent for more people visiting wilderness (walking in under their own power) so that they might have more authentic experiences in nature, care more, and develop a closer connection to the Earth.

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The Ecological Staircases of Mendocino County

Original Publication DATE: 11/7/2012

A sequence of five elevated marine terraces along Jug Handle Creek in coastal Mendocino County constitutes a nationally and internationally famous ecological staircase. So outstanding is the combination of canyons, terraces and ancient dunes, tall redwoods and firs, bishop pine forest and dwarfed pines and cypresses that…It has become a Mecca for naturalists, botanists, ecologists, pedologists (soil scientists), geographers and nature-oriented laymen. It is being praised as the best preserved ecological showplace of coastal landscape evolution anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

–Hans Jenny 1973

Throughout the Pleistocene, as the climate fluctuated, sea levels rose and fell in conjunction with the size of the polar ice caps thus allowing oceanic wave-action to cut coastal terraces around the world. Subsequent tectonic forces then slowly pushed these terraces upward. What we now witness in coastal Mendocino County is, as Jenny states, the best preserved ecological showplace of coastal landscape evolution in the Northern Hemisphere.

Mendocino Ecological Staircase

Through other dynamic processes, beach materials like sand, gravel, clay and other rock have been deposited on the terraces at varied depths. Directly adjacent to the Pacific Ocean on the first step, wind sculpts coastal scrub and grassland on coastal bluffs or “Bonsai” beach and bishop pine forests just inland. A bit further up the staircase, out of reach of the salty air, ample precipitation, Pleistocene and Holocene sand dunes, and deposition of nutrient-rich conifer needles offers the abiotic needs for trees with deep roots and tall shoots. However, the most amazing staircase story begins just to the east of the ancient dunes.

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Bristleconing: from Charleston to San Francisco

Original Publication DATE: 7/7/2012

Spring Mountain National Recreation Area

Rising from the lowlands at the edge of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, the Spring Mountains are renowned for flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. This endemism occurs because these mountains exhibit extreme vertical relief, temporal isolation, and a geographic position on the boundary of two deserts. Charleston Peak, the highest mountain in the range at nearly 12,000′, is a stark contrast to the desert 9,000′ below. Vertical relief is a barrier to migrations and, as a result, relict species have persisted and  new species have evolved. It is postulated that at least 25 species (15 vascular plants, 1 mammal, 9 invertebrates) are endemic to the Spring Mountains (Spring Mountain Conservation Agreement 1998).

Into the wilderness.

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Southern Siskiyous or the Annularity of Rarity

Original Publication DATE: 6/10/2012

Lewisia kelloggii in the Siskiyous

In the southern Siskiyou Mountains, around the headwaters of Bluff Creek, a discovery was made a few years ago that I was intrigued to see for myself. Kirk Terrill, a Forest Service Botanist, found an unusual flower on an isolated ridgeline of serpentine. In 2010 these plants were determined to be Lewisia kelloggii and, thus far, this is the only documented population in the Klamath Mountains. Elsewhere it grows sparsely in the high country of the Sierra Nevada. In the Siskiyous it grows under and among another regional rarity–lodgepole pine. Driving up the forest service road from Highway 96 toward Cedar Camp I knew these trees would be the key to finding the rare lewisia, which only blooms for a short time in early June. Upon finding the lodgepoles and the serpentine, I unsaddled and walked the stark ridgeline. Within half and hour I had succeeded in my own rare-plant treasure hunt. Read about the one that inspired my journey, written by Carol Ralph of the North Coast Chapter, Califiorina Native Plant Society, HERE. Continue reading “Southern Siskiyous or the Annularity of Rarity”

Conifer Rarity in Southern California

Original Publication DATE: 3/17/2012

Work occasioned a trip to southern California which, of course, also required me to spend some time with a few regionally endemic conifers. I had never visited the Torrey pine or Cuyamaca cypress, so in planning the trip to Palm Springs for a conference, Allison and I took a few extra days–looping south toward the Mexican border–to see North America’s rarest pine and cypress.

Torry Pine (Pinus torreyana)

Rarity is a new endeavor for the Torrey pine. Though it is the current record-holder for “rarest North American pine” it has not always been that way. It is an ancient pine, whose lineage (or at least that of a near ancestor) extends back as far as the Oligocene or Miocene with a range that extended as far north as Oregon (Kral 1993). In the Pleistocene, the species probably ranged throughout the coastal basins of Southern California but became restricted to coastal San Diego County and Santa Rosa Island over the last 12,000 years or so, during Holocene warming (Waters and Schaal 1991). Its closest extant relative is probably the Coulter pine (Pinus coulteri).

Charismatic specimens are sculpted by the pervasive wind, fed by moist coastal fog, and nourished by the sandstone on which they root.

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Hotel, motel, whatcha ya gonna do today? (Say what!)

Original Publication DATE: 12/25/2011

Why, climb Mount Hilton in the Trinity Alps of course.

As I approached the trailhead the car’s outdoor thermometer read 28oF and, with the windows down, the iPod shuffled Rapper’s Delight for my auditory indulgence. I pulled into the large parking lot at Canyon Creek as the lone (semi-domesticated) representative of the human race. Donning hat and gloves, I hoisted my pack and climbed toward what I hoped would be a world-class penthouse suite. With Sugar Hill Gang resonating in my head–as other drift-less tunes have on previous trips–the lyrics seemed preposterously apropos as I progressed toward the named summit (hotel, motel, Mount Hilton…). What five-star resort could possibly compare to a perch on glacially polished granite–surrounded by sky, stars, and wilderness–with a forecast of continued high pressure and a hard freeze? None in my mind.

A five-star morning sunrise high in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

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High Pressure in the Siskiyou Wilderness

Original Publication DATE: 12/16/2011

The winds were blowing across southern California and the skies were clear in the north. This unseasonal weather, cultivated by a high pressure system sitting over most of the West coast, motivated a 24 hour whirlwind into the Siskiyou Wilderness. My goal was to search for an unusual population of Alaska yellow-cedar documented and collected by Overton and Butler in 1979. I had discredited this report for several years because it did not fit within the parameters of my expectations for the species’ regional ecological amplitude–reported at a mere 3115 feet. If true, this would be over 2000 feet lower than any other regional population. In the fall I made it to the HSU Herbarium to look at the specimen and, sure enough, it was properly identified by the duo. I had to find this unusual place. The high pressure was the excuse to escape the stress of the end of 2011, get into the mountains, and attempt to find another outlier in the Siskiyou Wilderness.

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Miracle Mile

Russian Wilderness, California

Original Publication DATE: 8/31/2011

In the late 1960’s, after arriving at Humboldt State University as a new professor, John O. Sawyer received a letter in the mail from G. Ledyard Stebbins. Stebbins, widely regarded as one of America’s leading evolutionary biologists but also a lover of rare plants, suggested to John that he needed to visit a remote place in the Klamath Mountains known as Blake’s Fork. Here, he said, John might help verify a report for one of California’s rarest conifers–the Engelmann spruce. Stebbins hoped John could record his findings in a new database called the Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of California organized by the California Native Plant Society. With conifers calling, John and his friend and co-worker Dale Thornburgh went on a journey that would change our understanding of conifer distributions, plant associations, and wilderness in California.

Russian Wilderness
The heart of the Russian Wilderness and the Miracle Mile, with Russian Peak to the far left. This spiney ridge separates Sugar Creek (left) from Duck Creek (right).
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Larix Lyallii | Derivations on a survival regime

Original Publication DATE: 8/10/2011

Conifers possess highly derived adaptations that allow them to flourish on continental land masses north and south of the 45th parallel—to the arctic tree line. They also grow in similar regions with decreasing latitude, like the various cordilleras of western North America. Though they comprise less than 1% of all plant species (~630), they define 30% of the forests on Earth. In order to survive in colder climates conifers must be able to handle temperature and moisture extremes. As a cat preens its fur, most conifers care for their needles. These waxy progeny are coddled when energy is diverted from other tree functions to maintain needles—often for many years. This heavy investment must allow needles to endure both high and low temperatures while at the same time regulating water loss during the warmer months. Also, because most conifers are evergreen, they are not inhibited by late spring or even summer frosts which might otherwise kill the leaves of a less cold-adapted species. Angiosperms–many of which are deciduous–generally inhabit lower elevations and warmer regions where they spend less time and energy in leaf production and maintenance and can therefore allocate resources to grow faster and pioneer oft-disturbed landscapes more rapidly. It it these two generalized survival regimes that had me confused on a recent backpack into the Pasayten Wilderness where there is a conifer that has blazed a unique path for survival on the edge of the Washington State alpine tundra.

The alpine tundra of the Pasayten Wilderness is characterized by small hummocks decorated with diminutive heaths and grasses with the much taller conifers surviving on only the fringes of this landscape.

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Mount Saint Helens | Goat Marsh RNA

Original Publication DATE: 7/23/2011

As Allison and I began to map our route through the Cascades for our summer vacation I proposed that we visit Mount Saint Helens. Allison quickly agreed but jokingly asked what conifers were there that I wanted to see–I relented that I wanted to familiarize myself with noble fir (Abies procera) outside of California and this was a place recommended by Chris Earle on his epic website. What we found in the Goat Marsh Research Natural Area was a juxtaposed landscape shaped by geological forces. We ambled through some of the most depauperate and some of the most productive forests we had ever seen. The resulting plants fostered in certain locations were there based solely on the substrate. The forests on the flows of ash, mud, and rock placed here by Mount Saint Helens allowed only the heartiest plants to survive. Other forests, hidden around the edge of protective mountains and out of reach from the mud and rock flows, grew on soils which had remained undisturbed and were thus less porous with higher nutrient contents–ultimately yielding some of the grandest forests on Earth.

The Goat Marsh Research Natural Area was identified for its mountain wetland communities, xeric lodgepole pine forests, and noble fir forests associated with an active Cascade volcano.

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Ecological Amplitude: A story of climax

Original Publication DATE: 7/15/2011

Box Camp Mountain | Marble Mountain Wilderness

Ecological amplitude is the range of habitats, often dependent on and defined by elevation, within which a certain species has the ability to survive. In the Klamath Mountains there are two species of pines that define the highest elevations–growing at or near the summits of peaks from ~7500′ to 9000′ (The Klamath Mountains get no higher). Foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) inhabit our sky islands where they are the crowning jewels of this coniferous wonderland.

Jeffrey Kane ponders the approach to Box Camp Mountain from the Pacific Crest Trail.

Box Camp Mountain is interesting for several reasons. The first is that its summit is only 7,267′ yet both species of said pines live in this fringe habitat. This is generally on south-facing slopes where lack of competition from firs and hemlocks (which thrive on north-facing slopes) is minimal. When approaching the summit I began to doubt the reports of these pines being here; but in the last few hundred feet they began to appear. Throughout Holocene warming, these two species (and others) have slowly been retreating up  regional mountains. Now, after thousands of years, they have reached their ecological climax on Box Camp–there is no more up on which to grow. This mountain holds the most formidably presumptive story I have attempted to read in a high elevation Klamath landscape–and what I read does not appears to have a happy ending.

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Red Buttes Wilderness | Recognizing Wild

Original Publication DATE: 7/13/2011

Our adventure began in the heavy rain of late June. We waved farewell to Allison from the Canyon Creek Trailhead to walk the Bigfoot Trail–in search of wild plants and places–for two weeks. As we climbed into the Trinity Alps it was doubtful we would be able to hike very far because of heavy snow and high water. On our second day, as the rain cleared, we approached the dangerously swift Stuarts Fork and were, for a moment, stopped by Mountains and Water.

Wet weather, heavy snow at the passes, and swift creek crossing typified the first week of hiking through the Trinity Alps, Russian Wilderness, and Marble Mountains. Bottom left is the crossing of Stuarts Fork in the Alps–without that log, the trip would not have happened.


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Sequoia National Park & Monument

Sequoia National Park & Monument • Original Publication DATE: 6/10/2011

Sequoia National Monument – In search of giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantium)

A slow return north from Mexico found me revisiting old stomping grounds in the southern Sierra Nevada. I first drove from Kernville to Springville to fully enjoy the Giant Sequoia National Monument. When I first ventured out on my own after college I lived near Springville and taught environmental education at SCICON. On weekends I would often attend church in the Freeman Creek grove, disappearing for hours on end in one of the largest stands of sequoias outside the national parks. I returned to this grove to re-explore 15 years after my first visits–I think the trees have gotten bigger.

Freeman Creek Grove
Freeman Creek Grove

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Parque Nacional – Sierra de San Pedro Martir

Original Publication DATE: 6/7/2011

This mountain range had been a place in my dreams for many years. I had heard about its rich conifer forest, that many of the conifers (and other plants of course) common within California reached their southern range extension here, and that a natural fire regime had been ‘maintained’ by mother nature. This was an intact a forest–in as natural a state–as we 21st century explorers might hope to find. The mountains themselves are part of the Peninsular Ranges which I was quite familiar with, having lived in the San Gabriel’s for many years.

San Vicente
Fueling up on tacos in San Vicente before powering into the wilderness of Baja California Norte.

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Tecate cypress | Coal Canyon Ecological Reserve

Original Pubication DATE: 5/30/2011

On the way to Huntington Beach to pick up a friend, I made a stop to see the northern most stand of Tecate cypress (Cupressus forbesii) in North America. It is an interesting place to visit because it was almost lost to development, but in the courts it was decided that the last wildlife corridor from the Santa Ana Mountains to the Chino Hills was more important than a new neighborhood. The cypresses are protected now in the Coal Canyon Ecological Preserve which is part of Chino Hills State Park. While the area is well studied the trees are difficult for the public to access–at least I could find little about getting to them. There were many bikers in the area, some of whom said the trees were more easily accessed from a different route than I took.

The highway and underpass between Coal Canyon (left) and the Chino Hills State Park (right).

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Baden Powell – San Gabriel Mountains

Original Publication DATE: 5/29/2011

On the way south I decided to revisit some of my favorite hikes from when I lived in the San Gabriel Mountains and taught outdoor education. The top on the list was the summit of Mount Baden Powell. Because the summit is 9,399 feet, it is within close proximity of the Pacific Ocean (on the rare smog-free day it is visible), and on the edge of the Mojave Desert there is astounding plant diversity meeting and mixing on the flanks of the mountain. Day one of my journey I climbed the peak and day two I dropped into the San Gabriel River valley within the Sheep Mountain Wilderness to enjoy the lower elevations of Baden Powell’s mastiff. Both were amazing hikes–pictures follow.

The Ascent – Mount Baden Powell

Mt. Baden Powell
The Pacific Crest Trail skirts the ridge and takes in the dramatic views on Baden Powell–the inverted layer of smog above the Los Angeles basin is also visible.

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