2019 Conifer Country Updates

The first virtual CNPS meeting featured a presentation about my work in summer 2019.

BLURB FROM THE TALK: Humboldt County educator, author, and ecologist Michael Kauffmann has been tracking the status and distribution of Klamath Mountain conifers for over 15 years and his book, Conifer Country, if the definitive field guide to the region. Michael will take us from mountain summits to coastal river valleys and provide updates on the status and distribution of many of these charismatic conifers based on field work in the summer of 2019 with the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team. He will also share photos and stories about exciting plants from the region.

Sitka Spruce Decline in California

Where Highway 101 hugs the Pacific Coast in Humboldt County, north through Del Norte County, Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) are loosing needles at an alarming rate. This phenomenon, caused by the non-native green spruce aphid (Elatobium abietinum), grew into a noticeable problem in winter 2019-2020. The aphid thrives during winters with warmer than normal temperatures. Last year’s defoliation was especially severe in Oregon and the aphids continues to move south. Sitka spruce decline in California is in its early stages.

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Western Redcedar in California

From Alaska south to Oregon western redcedar (Thuja plicata) is the signature tree of the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest. It has mythic importance to native people, as entire civilizations were sustained, in large part, by this species. Natives of the Pacific Northwest regarded the species as a “Long Life Maker” (Stewart 1984) because they used it for canoes, paddles, houses, roofs, clothes, bedding, rope, cooking, and even medicine. Few giant trees were actually felled before the arrival of Europeans because old snags were usable for many years after death. Highly resistant to rot, the snags or parts of live trees would be harvested instead of the entire live tree. After building a dugout canoe from a tree, Lewis and Clark named it “arbor vitae,” Latin for “tree of life” (Arno 2007).

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Pacific Silver Fir in California

Part 2: Marble Mountain Wilderness

Read Part 1

In conjunction with the Klamath National Forest and the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team, I completed a mapping and inventory project for Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) in California. The first part of this project was along the Siskiyou Crest, near the Oregon-California border. This post is about the populations in the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

In 2016 I embarked on a mapping and inventory project for yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) in California. At the time, I called yellow-cedar California’s rarest conifer. In 2019, new discoveries on the north slopes of Copper Butte and Preston Peak brought the total hectares of yellow-cedar in California to ~21 hectares. With this new data, and that collected in this project, we now know Abies amabilis is California’s rarest conifer*! See table below for stand data summary.

*This excludes the neoendemic California cypresses.

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My other side of the Mountain

Exploring upper Copper and Indian creeks for yellow-cedar

I have been mapping and inventorying yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) in California for the past four years. This process could have been much more efficient if it wasn’t for the 2018 Eclipse Complex and the 2019 Natchez Fire (more below) that virtually closed the Siskiyou Wilderness for the past two summers.

Successful surveys before this year have doubled the previously known area of this rare conifer from approximately 5 hectares in 2015 to 11 hectares by 2018. One of the largest gaps in surveys was within upper Indian and Copper creeks in the Klamath River watershed. I predicted this is where the largest stands of the species would be–little did I know how large an area I would find.

Camping with yellow-cedar.
El Capitan (6670′) looms above Copper Creek.
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Pacific Silver Fir in California

Part 1: The Siskiyou Crest

Read Part 2

Pacific silver fir range map from Conifers of the Pacific Slope.

In conjunction with the Klamath National Forest and the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team, I began a mapping and inventory project for Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) in California. The first part of this project was along the Siskiyou Crest, near the Oregon-California border. Later this summer I will visit the other population in the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

Pacific silver fir in California can easily be overlooked because of its similarity to white fir (Abies concolor). Upon close inspection (and by going to specific locations) the differences will become apparent. Silver fir is identifiable in the hand because it has the most distinct and exuberant stomatal bloom of any regional tree. Like grand fir (and regionally white fir) the tips of the needles are notched. The needles splay from the branch on only one side often in a perfect arrays, fanning out in a semi-circular manner. The needles occasionally twist in this array, thus offering distinct silver flashes of the stomatal bloom on the undersides—a brilliant contrast to the dark-green upper surfaces. This is also what sets it apart from white fir, with a duller stomatal bloom. As with other Abies, the smell of crushed needles emits a resinous “pine scent.” The bark is distinct, forming long, narrow, rectangular blocking patterns that seem to melt off the trunks in silvery chunks with subtle reddish hues in the furrows. At a distance, larger trees are gradually tapered, similar to Shasta fir (Abies magnifica var. shastensis). It is an inimitable and rare experience to spend time with this beauty in the Klamath Mountains

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Redwood Experimental Forest

Exploring the Yurok RNA

Many years back I discovered that there were little known biodiversity hotspots that had been described by a handful of ecologists. These places had been designated as Research Natural Areas for the primary purposes of maintaining biological diversity, providing baseline ecological information, and encouraging research and university natural-history education. These places are all relatively pristine and sometimes close to roads in non-wilderness areas.

It was in this way that I first learned about the Redwood Experimental Forest that also contains the Yurok RNA. But I had never visited this place despite the fact it has been on my list since the early 2000s. That all changed in June 2019.

This team is embarking on a three year study of conifer resistance to drought. Our study will involve at least six species, both common and uncommon, across the Klamath Mountain region.
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Residual Old Growth

Big Trees of the Freshwater Creek Drainage, Humboldt County

Old-growth forests are forests that have developed over long periods of time, without experiencing severe, stand-replacing disturbance—a fire, windstorm, or logging. Within the redwood forest belt, of the estimated 1.6 million acres of redwood forest remaining, only 7% is old growth. The remaining 93% is considered some level of second growth. Around Humboldt Bay where we live that number is approaching 99%. The old-growth trees that do remain are often mixed within the second growth forests. Most often, an old tree was left behind by loggers because of imperfections like broken tops or less than optimal heartwood. This post explores some of the residual old growth in my neighborhood.

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Klamath National Forest Whitebark Pine

Mapping and monitoring Pinus albicaulis

For the better part of July I was contracted by the Forest Service Region 5, in a partnership with the CNPS Vegetation Program, to follow up with our 2013 work mapping and monitoring whitebark pine in the north state. I visited numerous sites where I predicted Pinus albicaulis might occur to conduct surveys and improve our state-wide range map for the species. Overall, the health of the species in northern California is in slow decline due to a variety of factors including mountain pine beetle, white pine blister rust, global climate change, and recent high intensity fires. In an earlier post, I shared some highlights from the Modoc National Forest, this post shares  images and highlights from Klamath National Forest whitebark pine work.

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Warner Mountains — whitebark pines and beyond

Warner Mountains
Conifers of the Warner Mountains. Maps from Conifers of the Pacific Slope.

The Warner Mountains are a north-south trending fault block range in the northeastern corner of California, extending northward into Oregon. The length of the range is approximately 90 miles, with the northern California portion bounded by Goose Lake on the west and Surprise Valley on the east. In California, elevations range between 5,000-9,897 feet (on Eagle Peak). In the High Grade district, which is the extreme northern limits of the Warners in California, the range has a fairly even crest of 7500 feet, reaching an elevation of 8290 feet on Mount Bidwell. This is the area where I spent four days mapping and monitoring whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) for the US Forest Service.

The geology of the region is complex and compelled me to understand it better. Bedrock consists of sedimentary rocks of the Oligocene overlain by rhyolitic to basaltic volcanic rocks of the Miocene. The basal andesite is overlain by rhyolite and glassy rhyolite, which are in turn overlain by basalt flows. There are valuable minerals and gems found in this area that have justified a long-standing history of mining. Gold was the first and major extracted mineral soon followed by opals, petrified wood, and even obsidian. The range is a complex assemblage of interesting rocks for sure which help sculpt the regional ecology.

The northern Warner Mountains have a long history of mining.

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Mill Creek Wilderness

Mill Creek Wilderness The main event has been on the calendar for the past eight years. I have heard stories from friends who have actually traveled around the world to see the phenomenon–and from that alone I knew if there was and eclipse practically in our backyard, we needed to go. We selected a spot in the heart of the Ochoco National Forest and literally on the edge of the Mill Creek Wilderness in a meadow complex. The Mill Creek Wilderness Twin Pillars Trail was our hiking destination the day before the eclipse event. The wilderness protects a harsh environment typified by ancient lava flows, fire-prone conifer forests, and the Mill Creek Drainage itself. We found wonderful views across central Oregon and a fire-scared landscape on our way to the Twin Pillars. In addition, western larch (Larix occidentalis), was the conifer highlight on this adventure.

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Torrey Pine Forest

Santa Rosa Island Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana ssp. insularis)

Torrey pine range map from Conifers of the Pacific Slope.

The first time Santa Rosa Island landed on my plant exploring radar screen was when I learned about the Torrey pine some time in the early 2000s. I had never even seen this tree until I took a trip to Torrey Pines State Reserve north of San Diego in early 2012. It is the rarest pine in North America with several thousand “mature” trees on both the mainland and island. My bucket list for understanding the ecology of this species is complete now that I have visited the island.

As mentioned in an early post, pigs were first introduced on Santa Rosa in the mid 1800s. By 1888 it is estimated, based on historical records, that there were only 100 Torrey pines on the island. Today, all  herbivorous megafauna have been removed (minus 5 sterile horses from the old ranch) and the Torrey pine are thriving–with an estimated 12,300 trees–one-quarter of which are saplings!

Researchers debate the arrival time of the Santa Rosa Torrey pine, estimating anywhere from 6,000 to over 1 million years. Disagreement also exists as to whether these two population represent subspecies or varieties of each other. Some argue the two populations are  genetically different enough to be considered a subspecies, others prefer distinction at the variety level. Regardless, it is a beautiful species and well worth seeing in the wild.

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The Cloud Forest

The cloud forest on Santa Rosa Island.

Santa Rosa Island

We passed five Orcas (Orcinus orca) on the passage to Santa Rosa Island

After a two hour boat ride from Ventura Harbor that included sightings of gray and killer whales, passengers disembarked onto a newly-built pier and subjacent white sand beaches. We had arrived. Once unloaded, the park ranger offered an orientation rejoicing in our good fortunes. The high winds and thick fog which had typified the previous few weeks had now subsided. The forecast for the coming days included sun, low winds, and perfect temperatures.

Fog and wind are omnipresent on Santa Rosa Island and play a major role in shaping the landscape. Any plants with a propensity for upward growth are restricted to canyons, particularly north sloping ones. Here they find refuge from the wind and often more available moisture provided by the meager 15-20 inches of annual rain. However near the highest island peaks–like Black Mountain at 1,300 feet plants have adapted to wind and fog in different ways.

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Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island

Channel Islands National Park

Santa Rosa Island overview.

In 1998 I first visited the Channel Islands. This was early in my naturalist career but I was struck,  none-the-less, by the beauty and isolation I found on Santa Cruz Island. On that trip I first saw the endemic island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis) and began to develop an understanding and interest in island biogeography. Twenty years later this experience brought me to Santa Rosa Island–in major part to see the Torrey pine grove–but also for the opportunity to explore one of the least visited places in Southern California.

Santa Rosa Island is separated from the mainland by over 25 miles of water. The next closest landmass is San Miguel, which is now isolated from Santa Rosa by three miles of water. Isolation has nurtured endemism on both a localized island level as well as on a unifying level between islands. Combined, all the Channel Islands are home to 150 species of unique plants and animals. Santa Rosa hosts 46 of those, including six endemic plants that grow nowhere else.

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Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve

Albino redwood.
Albino redwood.

Hot springs and tall trees, all hidden in a remote area of Mendocino County. This was the family destination for a pre-Thanksgiving celebration. Most or our time was spent at Orr Hotsprings but an day-hiking excursion treated us with a fabulous adventure in an isolated redwood grove at Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve.

The hike was punctuated with firsts: my son’s first multi-mile hike and my my first albino redwood.  The park previously held the tallest recorded redwood — at 367.5-foot it was once declared the world’s tallest. While the Montgomery tree is still alive, the new record  is in Humboldt County. Other exciting finds in the park included an excellent expanse of giant chain ferns in a lowland basin along the trail. Read more about Montgomery Woods from Save the Redwoods League.

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Bear Peak Botanical Area

Citizen Science in the Siskiyous

img_4865I recently started a citizen science project with 5 classes of high school biology students from Fortuna, California. The plan is to combine their observation skills with the technology offered by iNaturalist. Each month they will visit Rohner Park and record data on a chosen spot in the forest–looking for plants and animals as well as  changes in canopy and ground cover. As they become more proficient in species ID, students will also upload observations to our iNatural Project ultimately creating a field guide to their local forest. We all know how much I like field guides…

My plan, over future visits to wilderness areas, is to start similar citizen science projects.  The first attempt at this wide-ranging project began this week on a visit to the Bear Peak Botanical Area on the Klamath National Forest. I originally wrote about this area in my book Conifer Country because it is unique in many ways, including the populations of yellow-cedar found  here. This species in common further north, but quite rare in California.

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Mount Linn Revisited

Northern California’s Coast Range

IMG_2641
A view from Mount Linn toward the Pacific Ocean and the distant King Range.

Mount Linn–also called South Yolla Bolly Mountain–is the highest point in the Coast Range of northern California. It is located to the west of Corning but the area might as well be a world away from the population centers of the state; it is rarely noticed by travelers as they drive Interstate 5. Once off the interstate, scenic forest service roads still take nearly 2 hours to wind to the trailhead. I revisited this fine mountain in July of 2016 to set up a photo-monitoring plot along the Bigfoot Trail and took the time to also map the vegetation on the mountain–particularly the grove of foxtail pines near the summit. This is one of the smallest (12 acres) and most isolated groves for the entire species and one that I am very much concerned about due to climate change. Shasta firs are encroaching upon the trees as snowpack declines and temperatures warm. I was happy to see the trees doing well and many young foxtails sprouting up–just not as many as there are young firs.

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Choosing a Hike

How do you go about choosing a hike?

I have used various approaches which always involve careful map study, perusing the pages of hiking guides, and most importantly for me—studying field guides. As I get older, choosing a hiking destination is becoming more critical, with so much to see and even more to learn.

Hiking in the King Range.
King Range hiking.

Over time, I have gone about choosing a hike based more as a destination for discovery before any other factor. I think I first caught the hiking-for-natural-discovery bug while selecting a backpacking route exclusively to see condors in the Sespe Wilderness of southern California. When I moved to Humboldt in 2002, I graduated from bird destinations to plant exploring as I began searching out rare and unusual conifer species in our local mountains. This regular wilderness sideline blossomed into a Master’s Degree from Humboldt State University when I published my first book Conifer Country: A natural history and hiking guide to the conifers of northwest California in 2012. For 10 years I hiked to find and understand trees. These trees, and the places they grow, helped me develop a deeper passion for place and an understanding of the unique natural history of northwest California.

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San Gabriel Mountains Presentation

Plant Exploring in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 @7:30 p.m. at the Arcata Masonic Lodge

From the California Native Plant Society North Coast Chapter:

Explorer, writer, and educator Michael Kauffmann will lead us on a journey into the Transverse Ranges of southern California to explore the world of what John Muir called the steepest mountains in which he ever hiked. Michael’s explorations began because of a Bigcone Douglas-fir mapping and monitoring project he is leading in conjunction with California Native Plant Society, but these studies have allowed him to make more discoveries–from one of the world’s largest oaks to the most isolated grove of Sierra junipers in the world. Michael will take us on a photographic journey from the mountain tops to the river canyons across one of the nation’s newest national monuments.

San Gabriel Mountains