Thursday, October 12, 2017

Tree Homage and Fire Suppression

Kathleen Sayce, October 12, 2017

Much of the Pacific Northwest coast is in the Coastal Temperate Rainforest Biome, a mouthful of words that carefully describe our climate and native vegetation. 

Western Red Cedar, Long Island Cedar Grove, a
lovely subject for tree homage. 


Coastal—on the Pacific Ocean, a climate dominated by onshore winds and rain. 

Temperate—a mild climate of cool wet winters and warm dry summers. Those summers have been getting hotter lately, and more often, not a good sign of what is to come, but generally, this is a great place to live. Not too cold in winter, not too hot in summer. 

Rainforest—a complex forest, so wet that they have a layered structure of big tall trees with epiphytes (plants that grow on plants), understory trees, tall shrubs, low shrubs and ground-covering plants. So much rain that growth is good year after year, in some of the highest site classes of North America, site class being forester-speak for good tree growing conditions. Tillamook County, Oregon, north to Grays Harbor County, Washington, is right in the middle of old deep soils, ample rain, mild summers, and high site classes for timber. 

Biome—the life forms of a region. In this place, multi-species coniferous forests with hardwoods as minor understory trees. 

In the midst of all this growth, then there’s the flip side:  dry summers, when the onshore winds alternate with easterlies, when the air and then the soil dry down to tinder, when all that lush growth shows its other face as fuel ready to burn. Major wildfires are uncommon in our area, but when they come along, they can go big very quickly.  Historically, fires in the dunes kept the pines and other woody plants down and the land in prairie, a mix of grasses, sedges and wildfires. As a culture, we pay homage to trees and we suppress fires. It’s a volatile mix.

The Tillamook Burn, 1933, was a spectacular series of fires that started slowly in the Oregon Coast Range, and built up into massive firestorms, burning 350 thousand acres in a few weeks. For a modern retelling, read http://www.oregonlive.com/history/2017/09/how_bad_can_a_fire_get_in_oreg.html.

In 2014, one fall night, we came over the dune to the bayside, and looked across the water to a fire in the WIllapa Hills. I know our forests and dunes are vulnerable to wildfire, and that small fire, which burned only a few acres, got me thinking harder about fire resistance in forests. I’d toured forests in the 1970s where fires were set to burn the underbrush out and make the forests healthier and fire resistant—a point of view and management approach that has been part of my own lexicon ever since. 

Then in 2017, there were fires in the Columbia Gorge, started by teenagers tossing lighted fireworks, growing into a firestorm that leaped the Columbia River. A week or so later, Karina Blake wrote about forest protection and blame in Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/09/furious_oregonians_should_save_some_forest_fire_blame_for_themselves.html

Morning sun over Willapa Bay in mid summer:  The hills are buried in ash and particulates, the sun is a red dot. Winds from the east.

There is a controversy going on in Gearhart, Oregon over tree preservation versus fire safety right now.  In 2017 we also had weeks of poor air quality on the coast from wildfires in British Columbia, Montana, and eastern Washington and Oregon. Weeks when the sun rose blood-red and the skies were yellow and orange, and the air tasted of ash. 

How prairies become forests:  pines appear, fires (or mowing) does not follow along, and in a few years, all trees, no prairie.

Then came the fires early fall 2017, and multiple in northern California’s wine counties, or “Sonapamendonoma”, my husband (who is from San Mateo), calls them. Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties are north of San Francisco Bay, in the California Coast Range, covered with oaks, grasslands, homes, farms, and now devastated by wildfire. Years of drought, a wet winter and lush spring of growth, another dry summer, red flag atmospheric conditions (very dry soil and air, strong dry hot winds), and Bam! Another area is burned. 

Which brings me to the concept of better living with trees and fire. Here are some things that aggravate fires:  dense, even age forests; wet springs and dry summers; carelessness with fireworks; homes in the middle of dense forests; tree homage as a culture that makes fuel reduction difficult. 

Tree homage? Yes. We love trees. I love trees. But around human settlements, trees can be dangerous. In high winds, they break and rip from the ground, and fall over on other objects. Like homes.  We removed five very large trees from our property a few years ago. All were over one hundred feet tall, one was rotten inside, and split into sections when the main trunk came down, and every one of them could hit at least two buildings. Storms were nerve-wracking:  which tree might come down and hit which building this time? I loved those trees, the neighborhood eagles perched in them, but they were too big for safety. 

Commercial tree plantations are basically monocultures of even-aged, single species trees. Often a single clone, planted to thousands of acres. Dense, with standing dead trees among the living. Fire hazard waiting to burn, just a matter of when.

A shore pine thicket with seedling spruces nearby, in the dunes.


On the ocean side of the sand spit where I live, there are young dense shore pine monocultures for more than twenty miles, with very few firebreaks. Shore pine adapts to fire; it has cones that open only when burned. It grows in dense forests, which if they burn down, release seeds for the next dense pine forest. The only way to live safely with shore pine is to remove, thin and limb so that canopies don’t touch, limbs are well above six feet above ground, and to keep out the seedlings that follow. Pines grow in uplands and wetlands alike, and it’s not legal to thin or limb wetland trees, according to state and federal regulations. In our area, you can take upland trees out, limb wetland buffer trees (but not thin), and wetlands must be left as is. 

That late summer fire in red flag weather conditions?—there’s no water in the coastal wetlands then, and fires burn right through them. The best you can do (legally) is to keep woody plants out of the two hundred feet of land closest to your home. 

Harvest brodiaea flowering a coastal prairie as the dry season begins.

It’s a start on fire resistance, but if we want communities to thrive with fire, we have to do better.  Think about a bit less tree homage and a bit more fire suppression for community safety. Think woodland savannah instead of dense forest, and wider buffers of low vegetation between trees and homes. It’s time to bring back the coastal prairies.  


Monday, June 5, 2017

The New Old Garden


June 5, 2017

Like knitting, beyond exotic species and new hybrids, there probably really isn’t anything completely new in gardening, only things to rediscover—AKA new-old topics. These new-old topics include lawns of mixed species, or lawn replacements, and layered green garden beds where no soil shows. 

Coastal dune prairie, with western buttercup and
early blue violets--the turf that jump-started
my new old lawn. 
Into the nineteenth and early twentieth century, lawns were closely mown or grazed turf, composed of a mix of species, including grasses, wildflowers, bulbs and sedges. In other words, any plant that could tolerate close grazing or mowing might be found growing in a turf, or low meadow. This treatment kept out or down most woody species. 

Grass-only turfs were the purview of the wealthy, who hired people to mow and weed lawns and remove the non-grass plants, often by hand. The tyranny of the grass lawn began after World War II with a shift by chemical manufacturers from wartime gases to fertilizers and pesticides. This meant that anyone could have a lush grass-only lawn, just by applying the right synthetic chemicals at the right time. 

The ‘new-old lawn’ is a mix of species of grasses and wildflowers, designed on prairie palettes of low to tall wildflowers with a grass framework. Mowing is hugely reduced. Pesticides are not used, except perhaps to remove historic exotic grasses. 

Sand-dune sedge in a bare spot
Never a fan of summer watering, lots of chemicals (including fertilizers), or excessive weeding, I began pondering the turf tyranny a few years ago. A series of dry summers meant that the grasses regularly died back over large areas of my turf. Several exotic daisies promptly made a bid for dominance, including hairy catsear, common hawkbit, dandelion and leontodon. English daisy, Viola labradorica, creeping buttercup, trailplant, strawberry and others also expanded. 

In the midst of the profusion of flowers, I found some areas of turf were still green and thriving—these were patches of sand dune sedge, Carex pansa. Dry summers did not bother them at all. Thus began my rethinking of what constitutes a lawn. I began transplanting sedge clumps into bare areas. When I weeded, I removed only the largest exotic daisies, which are nurseries for several exotic European slugs that eat many garden plants. I left the rest, including mosses, ribwort, English daisy, violet, gill-over-the-ground, and dandelion, to grow and seed around. 

Coast goldenrod, another lovely low flower for
low meadows, and a good nectar plant.


We reduced mowing from weekly to every few weeks, leaving low mown strips along flower beds and letting the lawn grow taller elsewhere. I added sea thrift. This year I began pondering bulbs, which would need to be left to grow until foliage died down. I pulled out a hedge of lilacs along the marsh to replace with tall native grasses and wildflowers—to make a belt of meadow plants that can be mown at most once a year, to keep out woody species—and will otherwise be left alone. 

There are plants I intend to exclude. Ivy, Scots broom, gorse, and several exotic blackberries grow here. If areas are never mown, these species soon run riot over everything else. When we moved to this house, most of the property was a thicket of the aforementioned species, plus wild rose, grape, honeysuckle and plum. It took us years to clear the lower slopes of the dune behind the house so we could walk completely around the house outside.
It’s a work in transition. Eventually I will have three areas that are occasionally to regularly mown, high to low. There will be more native plants, more flowers, and more habitat for insects and animals that use meadows. I already see more butterflies and bumblebees than in the past. 
Sisyrinchiums are tiny irids that do well in lawns,
just don't mow them when they are flowering.


Garden beds are undergoing the same transformation from meticulously weeded and mulched, planted with carefully grouped species, to a ‘new green garden’ with a ground cover of low growing greenery, with no bare ground at all. It’s new to early 21st century gardeners, but was the normal garden condition for centuries, beyond areas where food plants and medicinal herbs were grown.  

Fringe-cups like some shade and moist soil. 
In my garden, this means tolerating some ‘weedy’ species, and clearing areas when I plant, and only then, removing those major competitors from a few square feet of soil. It also means using slug bait or encouraging garter snakes, which eat slugs. If I lived in a low rainfall area, I might be able to justify a bare-earth garden. But with eight to ten feet of winter rain being the norm, along with dry summers, lush is the default for my garden. So my new-old garden has ground covers of sedge, oxalis, forget-me-not, mosses, and only the rapacious ‘take all the nutrients and run’ species are removed. 


It’s a new way for us to think about gardens, but it’s been around for centuries. As an ecologist the idea I like the most is that this promotes diversity in the garden, and diversity always leads to more productivity and better endurance of the ecosystem. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Desmostylia––Ancient Sirenians of the North Pacific

May 21, 2017

This area of southwest Washington and northwest Oregon was underwater for many millions of years. Ancient marine mammals lived here along with fishes and a wide range of invertebrates, even though we do not have fossils from every square mile to look at today. So we look around the Pacific Rim to learn about the diversity of former species.

One of the strangest animals from our watery past is Desmostylia. A chunky, stout aquatic mammal of shallow waters and shorelines, it is distantly related to modern manatees, which are Sirenians. 

Formerly much more common in geologic time, Sirenians include three living species of manatees, one dugong, and the recently extinct Steller's sea cow. Their closest living relatives are elephants and hyraxes. Fossil Sirenian species in the Desmostylia group lived from the Oligocene to the late Miocene, about 25 million years, ending about 7 mya (millions of years ago). 

By the Miocene this area was a shallow sea with several river deltas and emerging mountain ranges, and with extensive swamps along the eastern edge, near the position of the modern Cascade Range. Climate was warmer in the Miocene, tropical to subtropical, and sea level was a couple of hundred feet higher.

Desmostylia fossils, including full skeletons and partial bits of bones, teeth and skulls, have been found around the North Pacific, from the south end of Japan, through Siberia, the Aleutian Islands, Pacific Northwest, south to the south tip of Baja California. Teeth make particularly good fossils because they are hard and slow to break down. Desmostylia has interesting large molars, along with more typical mammalian tusks and canine teeth. These teeth have been described as bundles of columns, which gives them their name, from the Greek desmos (bundle) and stylos (pillar).

These mammals were aquatic, and from isotopic analysis of teeth and bones, we know that they were marine. Other marine mammal features include retracted nostrils (tightly closed when underwater), and raised eye sockets (to see better at the surface). Stocky and stout, they weighed up to 440 pounds and were about six feet long, with a heavy shovel-shaped head and large strong teeth, short strong legs, and broad feet. You can see a complete desmostylian skeleton of at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. This individual lived 10 million years ago, towards the end of the Miocene. The museum has also done reconstructions of living animals, to give us an idea of what they were like.

There are no modern analogs to these mammals. For size comparisons, black bears and wild boars (feral pigs) can grow to 400 pounds or more in size. Hippopotamuses weigh up to 3,300 pounds, and live in freshwater, though some populations live in mangrove swamps. Manatees weigh up to 1,300 pounds, and live entirely in water. We could think of Desmostylia as a small hippo, in a sense, though they are not closely related.

With broad grinding molars, Desmostylians were herbivores. In marine and estuarine waters, what did they eat? Sea grasses and seaweeds, including kelps, are the mostly likely food plants. These plants live in shallow saltwater in large, dense stands. There was another powerful reason to stay in shallow water: Megalodon cruised the open waters of the world's warm oceans and seas. Desmostylia were about the right size to this huge shark to be like chicken nuggets to us.

Imagine if today 400-pound, six-feet-long marine herbivores grazed eelgrass beds in Willapa Bay. They'd jostle with the seals for haul out space, or sprawl in the marshes around the edges, and graze down the eelgrass stands at mid to high tide. Water quality might be an issue. Herbivores tend to produce a lot of poop, about five to seven times the volume, based on body size, that carnivores do. Today, hippos are one of the most dangerous animals we live around. Desmostylia might be similarly dangerous––placid until someone gets too close, and then those large teeth come into action, and oops, there's another ex-kayaker or ex-hiker. It would definitely make boating on the bay lively!

For more information, and good reconstructions of a Desmostylia, see
http://a-fragi.blogspot.com/2011/07/desmostylus-2010.html  where a Japanese sculptor, Hirokazu Tokugawa, has done very nice reconstructions of this fascinating paleo marine mammal.