Bruce Bratton

Some Cotoni Coast Dairies Reflections

Ever since the United States Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took control of 5800 acres of northern Santa Cruz County, conservationists have been asking themselves “what have we done?” The fateful transfer day was in 2014 when a private land trust, the Trust for Public Land, donated the property to BLM. It would be years before the negative repercussions of that handover were obvious. 7 years later BLM unveiled a draft management plan for Cotoni Coast Dairies, a document rife with errors including tables cut-and-paste from other plans from faraway places, lists of misidentified species, and proposals with little analysis and findings absent scientific rigor. How did such a bungling land management agency gain control of such a precious part of California’s coast? The story unfolds…

BLM’s Standard Bearers Support Poor Standards

As one comes to expect in our community, unctuous support for BLM’s draft plan for the property was lugubriously lauded by affiliates of profiteering recreational industries and their political hacks while conservationists carefully documented voluminous errors and omissions and suggested reasonable improvements to protect natural resources while providing access to open space. Subsequently, BLM perfunctorily changed the plan to address only the most egregious errors and, as expected, chose the ‘moderate use’ alternative, publishing an Environmental Analysis (EA), the easy, low-input, and cheap means for the agency to officially finalize approval. Shortly thereafter, conservationists filed an appeal to the Department of Interior and BLM asked for two extensions of the appeal window. During those extensions, and before the appeal was settled, BLM staff bulldozed areas of the property to prepare for one of its planned, but not yet permitted, parking lot. We don’t yet know which BLM official ordered that disgusting and undemocratic act, but we will find out. Conservationists won their appeal, but meanwhile the BLM had destroyed sensitive coastal prairie and cut trees that had long supported the federally threatened monarch butterfly. Meanwhile, it became clear that the only other parking lot location that BLM’s faulty plans had analyzed could not progress as planned because the road to the parking lot traversed private property without the consent of the owners. That was almost as surprising as the Coastal Commission’s allowance for that access road, which would have also paved a stream channel. It seems wherever one looks these days, the Coastal Commission pushes for maximizing public access even if it means careless destruction of natural resources. That matches well with BLM’s management philosophy.

No One Home and No Friends Left

Back in 2014, someone working at BLM told me that their office was ill-prepared for Santa Cruz. For years, their staff had managed land where there was no conservation constituency, where nature degrading recreational activities and other “resource” uses were unquestioned. Since BLM moved into Santa Cruz County and took control of Cotoni Coast Dairies, they have been unable to retain consistent managers: two field managers overseeing the property have departed and the newest one is rumored to be ‘remotely managing’ the property while living far away from the region. And yet, our community has long offered BLM friendship.

At first, BLM welcomed enthusiastic friendships, signing partnership agreements with the University of California at Santa Cruz and the Amah Mutsun Tribe. Now, BLM only admits to being partners with the group previously known as Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (see sidebar, from BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies property homepage). Why has BLM rejected its tribal and science partners in favor of the mountain biking industry? We need to go back to the beginning of the story to understand.

Swiss Dairyman and Subdivision Moguls

The Cotoni Coast Dairies got its two last names from a Swiss dairy and land investment company, which started in 1901 and ended in 1998 when the investors sold to the Trust for Public Land instead of a subdivision mogul. For 97 years, the land referred to locally as ‘Coast Dairies’ was managed by farmers and ranchers who made it clear that the public was unwelcome. Much of the rest of the County had been explored by botanists and wildlife experts whose wisdom and documentation led to so many parks purchases. But this was not the case with this huge part of the County: it had remained largely uncharted. In 1997, real estate magnate Brian Sweeney announced that he had an option to build more than a hundred luxury homes on the property. The owners were able to quote extravagant roperty value, so conservationists had to raise a lot of funding to conserve the property and thwart the threat from development. Without biological surveys, conservationists had to convince funders about the value of the ‘spectacular views’ and recreational potential instead of conservation values. That seems to me to be how the seed was sown for how people came to value the property in the years to come.

Trust for Public Land: 14 Years at Coast Dairies

After purchasing the property, for 14 years the TPL managed the property while trying to find a way out. TPL managed to give State Parks the ocean side of the property, including the beaches. State Parks opened those beaches to public access without any planning or environmental review. It took many more years to find any organization willing to own the inland portion of the property. TPL solicited proposals from various potential landowners. UC Santa Cruz made a proposal, which didn’t work out. Meanwhile, it was costing TPL a lot of money and headaches to retain the property and the funders wanted it opened for public access. As a last resort, TPL turned to the federal land management agency that had long served as property managers of the last resort: BLM…there didn’t seem to be another option. Besides, some of the illuminati of open space purchasers thought perhaps it could soon be a part of The Great Park, owned and managed by the National Park Service.

The Great Park

For a while after TPL purchased the property, the Open Space Illuminati advertised something called “The Great Park,” an expansive interconnected park system, with a National Park nucleus derived from Coast Dairies and a newly designated National Monument on the adjoining San Vicente Redwoods. For a while, it seemed like this idea had become fet a compli, but enough powerful opponents started asking questions…politics changed…and perhaps funders’ willingness waned. After some time, this particular iteration of a National Monument waned and the Great Park idea became a dim memory held only by a few.

A National Monument

As the Great Park and the San Vicente National Monument ideas waned, a new idea dawned: Cotoni Coast Dairies could become part of a National Monument! Charged up with a great deal of funding from the Weiss Family Foundation, the Open Space Illuminati parachuted in something that appeared to be popular movement: glossy brochures and websites popped up and The Monument Campaign was born. When conservationists exclaimed concern at the number of visitors that would be attracted to the property with such a designation, the Illuminati said ‘Shut up! This is the only way to make BLM accountable to protecting the property!’ They succeeded: in the last days of the Obama Administration, the president decreed that the property would become part of the California Coastal National Monument.

Post Monument Blues

Shortly after the President’s decree, the BLM dissolved the only staff positions whose work entailed guaranteeing protection under National Monument regulations. Since then, the BLM has refused to abide by its own regulations for managing National Monuments. Meanwhile, the Great Park and Monument Campaign Illuminati have likewise disappeared from the scene, their concerns for protecting the land swept away as they entered the next funding cycle’s focus in some other arena. Enter stage left the influential Outdoor Industry Association where business and profits pour from Nature commodified. Advertisements for ‘rad times’ on Santa Cruz County trails bring thousands of visitors, supporting a ‘green’ economy. Sales of super-expensive bikes skyrocket. Many conservationists are getting too old for the fight. It is easy to see what we have done, but what’s next is anyone’s guess. Best to stay apprised and keep asking questions; perhaps this is a good time for a renewed conservation movement in Santa Cruz County.

-this post originally posted at Bruce Bratton’s wonderful BrattonOnline.com blog

January’s Flower

For me, each month has its signature flower, one that I look forward to as a sign of the changing season, that I can find as predictably as the sunrise and sunset. If you follow this column in 2023 and are up for the challenge, I’ll give you 12 flowers to seek out, and I’ll describe the ways that it is emblematic of its given month. January’s flower is called Scoliopus bigelovii, Fetid adder’s tongue a.k.a. slink pod.

The name is not alluring, though perhaps you may find it beguiling: fetid adder’s tongue is the first wildflower of the New Year. It is a lily, but not your typical lily, so you might not recognize it as such. I judge how good I have been at being a naturalist each year on the basis of my having seen and smelled this distinct flower. The flowering period is brief. Too often, I find the plant after the flowers have faded, when I then recall its alternate name ‘slink pod’ for the seed pods that slink across the ground on long sinuous stems.

This is a very short plant, so you will have to bend nearly to the ground to put your nose to the maroon striped flower. The scent is like not very fresh fish, hence the ‘fetid’ part of its name. Those of us who sniff old mushrooms are familiar with the old fish smell of many mushrooms that are past their prime. The similarity of scent is not an accident…it is co-evolution.

Fungus Gnats

This year’s prize for my spotting this deep-shade wildflower was seeing its pollinator in action. Flies! “Of course,” I thought, “that smell and that maroon color are diagnostic for fly-pollination!” Reading up, I discovered that fungus gnats are important pollinators of fetid adder’s tongue, which needs to receive pollen from another plant in order to produce viable seed. The pods won’t slink unless the flowers get pollinated!

This flower appears in the darkest, coldest part of winter in the most shady, moist habitats around – not good conditions for most pollinators. Bumble bees, honeybees, and butterflies wouldn’t find enough to eat in the cold forest to warrant forays. On the other hand, moist soil and mushrooms are the perfect combination to support healthy populations of fungus gnats. As weak sunlight filtered through a rare patch of open sky, I watched slow-flying fungus gnats hovering around patches of the stinky fetid adder’s tongue flowers, dipping down to sip nectar, clumsily bouncing into the pollen-bearing stamens.

Ant Plant

As if specializing in dank forest fly pollinators wasn’t enough, fetid adder’s tongue also needs another insect helper to survive: ants. Once the fungus gnats have pollinated the flowers, the plant starts pushing the seed pods across the forest floor, far from the mother plant to ensure that any offspring don’t compete for the same rare forest floor nutrients. The pods ripen with seeds that have ant-food attached. The part of a seed that is ant food is known as an elaisome (ɪˈleɪəˌsəʊm): it is sweet and fleshy and nutritious. To get the tasty parts, they haul off the seeds and, as ants will do, bury them in their colonies. This is particularly handy for the fetid adder’s tongue as then the seeds escape both hungry deer mice and scorching fires.

Conserving a System

Fetid adder’s tongue’s natural history illustrates the interconnectedness of nature and the reasons we need to think broadly about what it takes to conserve species. To conserve this amazing plant requires having large enough slink pod populations for cross-fertilization and big enough populations and diverse enough species of fungus gnats for pollination. How large and diverse those populations should be is unknown. Those ants, fungus gnats, and fetid adders tongue populations require shady forests and rich soil covered with moist thick duff: those elements speak to not too much soil disturbance…think trail or logging disturbance management. How does wildfire play with these factors? Fire can’t be too catastrophic, and patches need to be burned less for shade, soil, and duff: that might take forest fuels and other wildfire management. Also, there are issues about invasive species: invasive fungi, weeds, and invasive ants could all negatively affect components of this ecosystem that would trickle into the health of slink pods. This all points to the wisdom of our community in fighting so hard for so many years to protect vast areas of redwood forests – we are seeing the patchy but catastrophic fires, invasive Argentine ants invading forest edges, and expansive soil disturbance from trail networks. Do we have enough forest set aside so that future generations will be able to witness the complex relationships between fungus gnats, ants, and fetid adder’s tongue? Are enough people now appreciating and viewing these amazing interactions? Let’s get out there and see…

Sleuthing Locations

Slink pod is not easy to find, though with a little effort you can do so. The trick is to be on time (January!) and to know where to look.

When I want to research exactly where to go to look for a plant, I turn to a database called CalFlora. This amazing online resource often has great photographs of each species, the Latin and common name(s), and an interactive map of locations. Click on a dot on the map and out pops a window telling you how it was documented there. In some cases, that allows you to see a scanned image of the herbarium specimen of the species. By looking at that map, I can suggest the best places to see this species in our region. The Forest of Nisene Marks and Big Basin State Parks have many records of this plant.

Plant People

If you click on that ‘scanned image’ link above, and examine the herbarium sheet of the plant, you’ll notice that it was collected in 1991 in Nisene Marks by Larry Kelly, now a leading international botanist at New York Botanic Garden. Clicking on other specimens, you’ll encounter other famous botanists going back in time, including Dean Taylor, an Aptos resident who was one of the cornerstones of California botany (1986), David Self, a founder of ecological restoration in California (1975), Deb Hillyard, for years our region’s protector of plants via the California Department of Fish and Game (1975), Ray Collett, long-time Director of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum (1966), John Hunter Thomas, the author of the go-to regional plant book ‘Flora of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ (1954), and Milo Baker, one of the State’s early famous botanists (1896).

Join In!

The Cal Flora website has recently begun to host observations from people posting on iNaturalist, an online forum for documenting and learning about nature. Download the application to your smart phone, take a photo of the plant, and you have an easy catalogue of your nature observations. You can also ask for help identifying a species. This crowd-sourced scientific catalogue can help others find a plant for which they are looking and provide scientists with long-term data on the population trends of species. Plus, because there are so many people placing observations at the site, it is mesmerizing to virtually explore the photographs, maps, and conversations about species – already there is a lifetime of things to learn and the site is young.

If you are up to my challenge, take a deep, dark forest stroll soon and try to find fetid adder’s tongue in bloom…and maybe enter that into your iNaturalist account.

-this post originally published at BrattonOnline.com, Bruce Bratton’s online weekly blog from Santa Cruz, California

The Elusive California Nutmeg

When I mention the California nutmeg tree to local people, I find most folks aren’t familiar with it, so this article might serve as an introduction to one of our least-known evergreen tree neighbors.

Image thanks to: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Needles to Say

California nutmeg has needles for leaves, and those needles hurt. Pines have needles in bundles, cypresses leaves are scales, and the local firs and redwoods look more like nutmeg in having single, short needles emanating along stems. Douglas fir stems have needles facing up and down and all around. Redwood and nutmeg trees have neater looking needles that just stick out the sides, along one horizontal plane. You can tell redwood and nutmeg needles apart because the latter have very sharp points. Because of the size and sharpness of the spines, nutmeg needles rival the painful jabs of blackberries and thistles.

Needles Afire

I was taught that redwood trees were the only conifer that could have more than half of the needles singed off a tree and still survive. I was taught wrong. The 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire scorched through many acres with California nutmeg- I haven’t found one that died from the blaze. Instead, just like coast redwood, the trees are either sprouting from their bases (if severely scorched) or sprouting new leaves and branches from their trunks and limbs. As an aside, I also had a Norfolk Island pine that also burned entirely but is resprouting…so, there appear to be more fire-sprouting conifers than once was thought.

The Wood

The wood of this tree is prized, but the tree is so uncommon that harvest is strictly non-commercial. The tree is not generally quick growing so it has close growth rings. And, the wood is quite different than any other wood around: it is a rich yellow-brown. I’ve heard lore that the native peoples used the wood for bows; people have mentioned to me seeing ‘bow wood trees’ where the tip of nutmeg trees have been bent over and weighted down to create a naturally curved trunk.

Conifer Fruit

This species is in the yew family. Some of you know yews, whose uses you wouldn’t guess include ewes. And, you would be right (as far as I know).

Yews are common shrubs in landscapes with bright red berry-looking fruit. Nutmegs do not make bright fruit, but their fruits are substantially odd. Perhaps the term ‘California nutmeg’ comes from examining the seed: peel off the thick rind and extract the hard nut, carve it in half and you might be looking at a nutmeg nut. California nutmeg nuts are solid and resinous like the foreign nutmeg, but our local one isn’t obviously useful as food, though some suggest the nuts may have once been used as food. Don’t eat the nut, though, it is poisonous if you don’t know how to prepare it correctly.

The coating on the nut is very interesting- watery and yet resinous and quite pungent. Squeeze the nuts and you get juicy with juice that doesn’t quite want to come off of your hand.

Medicine

Some of us recall the controversy of the cancer fighting medicine “Taxol” and the scare about losing the California nutmeg’s pacific northwest cousin the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia. Taxol keeps some types of cancer from spreading and was discovered in these yew-family trees. However, scientists figured out how to synthesize Taxol so we don’t have to rely on trees to make it, anymore.

When contemplating how to convince people that it is important to save species, I am advised to use examples like this where we have discovered life-saving drugs from wild plants. So, use this as an example.

Where to Find Native Nutmeg

I perused the herbarium records to let readers know where the public can go to see California nutmeg. It seems that the best places are in the Waddell Creek drainage from Rancho del Oso on up. One notable tree used to live near a waterfall in Big Basin- I wonder if is still there?

-this post originally published as part of my ongoing journalism in Bruce Bratton’s amazing weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

Storms and Floods

The sky has been raining sweet water across our landscape. What happens once that precious water hits the ground? Is rainwater welcome where it flows and where it ends up? Our collective actions make a big difference about how to answer these questions.

Stormy Times and Mud

For a while in the recent past, the ocean has been stormy with massive wind-blown, white capped waves. We get outdoors when we can and gaze out to sea from the bluffs, noticing bands of brown water coloring the otherwise steel gray ocean. Even streams draining relatively pristine watersheds are pulsing sediment now, providing the sand that will replenish beaches. Our mountains are naturally erosive, but humans have been adding to that erosive potential to our own detriment for far too long.

Do We Need Reminders?

Most years, winter storms remind us of certain places that routinely make the news. Suddenly, people remember that they live in drainage basins also known as “watersheds.” As winter rains commence, more people recall more often the names of rivers and streams. It is flooding time. The flooding San Lorenzo River often threatens Felton Grove and Paradise Park, causing mandatory evacuations. The Pajaro River, Corralitos Creek, and Salsipuedues likewise often pose flooding threats in Watsonville.

Floods: Non-Natural Disasters

Government and the media have trained us to call flooding a “natural disaster.” As with most disinformation, such “fake news” coalesces on grains of truth. Rain is natural. Atmospheric rivers are normal. Flooding happens naturally. Landslides and debris flows occur without human mistakes. If we didn’t have a deep geological history of erosion, some say that the Santa Cruz Mountains would be as tall as the Sierra Nevada. And yet, the frequency, severity, and impacts of damaging flooding is nearly entirely the fault of humans, resulting from poor decisions, often due to greed exercised through political power.

US Flooding History

For the USA, the best documented history linking damaging flooding to greed and political power has been focused on the floods along the Mississippi River. No one should unquestionably call floods ‘natural disasters’ after the investigations and media about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. I am disappointed by the cultural amnesia of the import of George W Bush’s admission that the sole book he recalled reading was John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. That book documented how the Mississippi’s 1927 flood propelled popular sentiment to supporting federal assistance programs for flood-ravaged communities. And so, was it any coincidence that decisions at the highest level of that Bush administration delayed federal assistance for Hurricane Katrina preparation, creating predictable levels of death, destruction, and suffering? Did these officieals actually think this was a good way to drive home the Republican party’s political message that Americans should not depend on federal governmental assistance? To shirk collective responsibility of such human-caused disasters, we must be trained to look past the decisions that ‘We the People’ made that are responsible for flood suffering. Our third-rate democracy allows greed-driven political decisions to create unsustainable levees to support short-term profits for commerce and real estate, benefiting the very few with disastrous long-term impacts disproportionately borne by the poorest, most marginalized communities. For this economic model and democratic structure to keep some semblance of function, some in power recognize that governmental assistance disaster recovery programs are important. I urge you to think about the lessons from Mississippi’s floods and national politics when thinking about local flooding and the political and media messages that entertain us during such disasters.

Recent Watsonville Flooding

Low-income housing areas in Watsonville recently experienced ‘unexpected’ flooding after levee failures. Why weren’t the residents notified? To believe the media, the fault was theirs: some hadn’t signed up for reverse 911…there was a warning! We pride ourselves with our disaster management systems. The Federal National Weather Service office in Monterey has highly skilled personnel who turn their full attention to flood monitoring, drawing data from radar, real-time rain, stream, and river gauges, and powerful computing. Flood watches come first then flood warnings. Interagency cooperation allows reverse 911 messages to be broadcast via cell phones and land lines, dedicated weather radio channels create alarms, and social media and web posts get regularly updated including pickup locations for sandbags. Emergency personnel deploy quickly to close off flooded neighborhoods.

Recent Rural Road Collapses

Landslides and trees fell across roads, blocking transportation routes for rural communities. Sometimes, the downslope side of the road collapsed. First cracks appeared, running parallel to the slope; then the side of the road slumped lower than the rest; after that, the section of road slid down the hill. Two lane roads will now have only one lane sections until The County can afford expensive repairs. Other times, the hill above the road slid down onto the roadbed, sometimes right across the road. Soil, gravel, rocks, and boulders blocked roads.  You might be able to see the top of the landslide, bare rock or dirt scalloped away, a boundary of precarious bared roots now reaching into the air. Somewhere, someone in the County is mapping the obstructions and prioritizing the deployment of detour signs and earth moving equipment while road closure maps are posted online. Meanwhile, rural residents tap into reserved groceries and try to figure out how to get to town for their jobs and supplies.

What Do We Ask?

The questions we ask about how these flood or landslide disasters occurred says a lot. Do we ask why people chose to live in such disaster-prone areas? Do we ask what history made such areas disaster prone? Do we ask how we can make people safer in the future? Do we ask how we can avoid repeating poor historical decisions that lead to such disasters? How do we prioritize which questions to focus upon? Who should be asking which questions? All these questions have answers including economic, political, and social dimensions.

Pursuing Answers

By law, real estate sales must disclose known disasters, so peoples’ choices about where to live should be well informed, but are they? It would be interesting to examine the history of the Watsonville levee failure: who built the levee – how and why? Did decision makers ask levee engineers to propose designs that accounted for historic flooding, maintenance expenses, and upstream development/land management constraints? If historical decision making was faulty, how has current decision making improved? As we recover from disasters, do we ask our elected officials to prioritize not only emergency response but also improved resilience?

Restoring Floodplains

As old, poorly designed levees fail across California and locally, we should be thinking about floodplain restoration wherever possible. Why do we continue pouring money into developing flood prone areas with real estate improvements that benefit the very few? I have been reflecting on the upswing in development of downtown Santa Cruz, which clearly is unsustainable both from river flooding and sea level rise…there are other town centers to develop that are safer! Instead, the City is pursuing treating the San Lorenzo like a big flood conveyance culvert instead of the river it is…as short-term ‘fix.’ To our south, the Pajaro and Salinas River floodplains could be restored to provide more flood protection for surrounding communities: there are many farmers willing to sell their land, but who should pay?

New Construction

As we develop new roads, trails, and other infrastructure, we should be mindful of their contribution to flooding. Is the City of Santa Cruz integrating rainwater catchment with their new developments? I see no evidence of flood mitigation with the ongoing, endless Highway 1 ‘improvements’ near Santa Cruz. The rail trail developments certainly don’t adequately address hydrological impacts. In our natural lands, there is no consistent approach to trail use to assure recreational impacts address flooding. Meanwhile, at Cotoni Coast Dairies, BLM bulldozed acres of bare soil just before this winter’s rains without any erosion control – slurries of mud and debris are flowing into streams and wetlands.

Next Steps

We can do better. Previously, I urged everyone to be involved with rain gardens – either as volunteers in public spaces or on their own lands. Cry out to the right people when you see bare soil – on farmlands or in construction zones. Only support trails groups like the Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship if/when they create soils saturation and trail use indexes that inform conservation lands managers to close and then re-open trails as appropriate and according to their purported mission to create ‘responsible outdoor recreation.’ Hold elected officials responsible to improve the resilience of infrastructure repairs/construction, enforce adequate disclosure notifications during real estate sales, and shunt new development to better areas. Together, we can be effective land stewards by fighting the greed that would otherwise cause un-natural flooding and landslide disasters in the future. We should never be cursing the rain.

-this column originally published by our County’s preminant journalist Bruce Bratton at his BrattonOnline.com weekly blog

Voting for the Environment

Isn’t it interesting what political candidates are willing to say about their environmental platforms? If they are good at running for office, they gage what they say carefully in reflection of what they think will be supported by the majority of voters. So, what political candidates are saying is as much a reflection of who we are as who they are. Let’s look at some of the things that District 3 Supervisorial candidates have been saying about how they will conserve wildlife and protect parks in northern Santa Cruz County. And, let’s reflect about how what they say reflects on Santa Cruz County residents.

Wildlife Protection and Parks Conservation

Let me start by outlining the main threats to the County’s wildlife and parks so that it is easier to put candidates’ positions into context. The main threats to wildlife and parks are as follows: loss of social support for wildlife conservation, loss of habitat, loss of landscape-level habitat connectivity, mismanagement of recreation on conservation lands, mismanagement of disturbance regimes on conservation lands, and invasive species. County Supervisors have the capacity to influence all of these threats, some more than others. It is important that anyone elected to office in our region understand these threats and have well formed ideas about how they can help.

I have yet to meet anyone in District 3 who does not hold wildlife conservation and parks protections as among their highest level of concerns. And yet, for many years they did not reflect those concerns in their support for a Supervisor to represent them. Let’s consider the present two District 3 Supervisorial candidates’ recent statements and what that says about District 3 voters.

Social Support

I cannot find any mention from either candidate that they recognize the peril that lack of social support is creating for protecting wildlife and parks in the County. In their positions as elected officials, they have had the opportunity to use their positions as megaphones for the importance of wildlife conservation. During their campaigns, they could mention the importance of healthy wildlife populations to County residents’ quality of life. Instead, Shebreh’s campaign notes that she will create a very mysterious ‘conservation academy,’ but no description of this academy is anywhere to be found. So I’m not sure of what problem will be solved through this effort. It has been a long time since any County Supervisor has championed wildlife conservation: why are they embarrassed to do so?

Habitat Loss and Habitat Connectivity

I cannot find any mention that loss of habitat in the County or habitat connectivity within and around the County are things that either candidate is concerned about. County Supervisors can influence these issues by working with the Planning Department to assure enforcement of existing sensitive habitat and open space ordinances and by pushing for General Plan amendments/updates to bring the County up to modern standards to address these critical issues. Supervisors have been remiss about these issues for years, resulting in widespread loss of sensitive habitats and loss of habitat throughout the County.

Poor Recreational Management in Parks

Parks recreation is the one area that both candidates have something to say. Shebreh mysteriously notes that she will “prioritize safe and accessible parks and beaches for everyone to enjoy.” What the heck does that mean? But it sounds good, right? Justin has said will “work on infrastructure issues related to beach access”…“bathroom facilities and adequate trash collection.” Both candidates have a lot of media about their strong support for keeping parks free of litter.

Neither of the candidates’ statements come anywhere close to addressing the grave situation facing conservation lands due to poorly managed recreation. Business interests and recreational offroad biking coalitions have been important forces in creating a wildlife habitat crisis due to overuse and degradation of conservation lands. County Supervisors could broadly galvanize support to better protect conservation lands while alleviating traffic, safety, fire and other impacts related to poor parks recreation management. Supervisors could also help County Parks to better manage beaches to protect endangered beach-dependent wildlife, something that is dearly needed.

Poor Habitat Management

Mismanagement of disturbance regimes on conservation lands and invasive species are the last two major threats facing wildlife in the County. For these, only Justin has anything to say: he supports creating a “countywide vegetation management program” so that fires “serve their role in the ecosystem.” How Justin could do that as Supervisor is not clear. But, if you can ignore that detail, his statement shows some wisdom and a nod to the importance of managing intentional fires. Shebreh has nothing to say about how she can help better manage habitats and invasive species in the County.

There is a lot that County Supervisors can do to help to better manage wildlife habitat in the County. They can fund and otherwise incentivize County Parks to better manage habitats and control invasive species. They can also work with County Public Works to better manage invasive species along roadsides. And, they can provide leadership to work with the State and County Agricultural Commissioner to ban the sale of invasive species at nurseries. And, they can work with fire response agencies to do more intentional burning to reduce fuels. No Supervisor has been leading in these ways recently.

What Candidates Are Saying Says About Us

For wildlife conservation and protection of open space, is it true that all we really care about is trash and restrooms in parks? It seems so, because that’s all our District 3 Supervisorial candidates think they need to address in their political messages!  What does that say about how vocal we are about these issues? Can we do better?

Look Around You

If you examine our success with wildlife conservation and open space protection, what the candidates are saying seems to be enough to get them elected.

Lots of people volunteer for beach cleanup: so, that seems like a good group of constituents to speak to. County residents have worked hard to protect open space, to create and make accessible our beautiful parks, another thing to mention that garners votes. The successful politician knows to focus on these two non-controversial and positive environmental areas.

What’s Missing

The problem is, once parks are “protected,” open space advocates disappear and there aren’t many conversations about how to manage parks so that wildlife remain in those spaces for generations to come. In that vacuum steps in business and recreational interests that commodify nature and destroy wildlife values. No number of toilets or bags of trash collected on beaches will mitigate those impacts.

I believe that Justin knows about all the threats to wildlife and open space conservation I outline above.  Maybe he feels he would lose support if he mentioned the things that he could do as supervisor to address them. However, he has said some critical things that show that he understands at least some of the issues. He also has the training needed to understand all the issues. Shebreh could likewise be in a position of not seeing any advantage of a more nuanced platform for addressing environmental threats. But, Shebreh does not have any training in environmental conservation, and she has chosen not to say anything about any environmental action she could take to address the threats to wildlife conservation and open space degradation in the County. The contrasts I’ve drawn between the two candidates should be enough for those of you vote for the environment to make an informed decision for this election.

Voting is probably the easiest way to let our concerns be known that wildlife conservation and open space protection are our priorities for elected officials. You get few chances to vote for Supervisor. Once this is done, I’ll outline next steps for your political actions to help make our County a better place for wildlife conservation and open space protection.

-this post originally published in Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com

Managing Pogonip

I recently came across my 1998 copy of the Pogonip Master Plan and was inspired to share with you some inspiration and interesting tidbits. I find Santa Cruz’ Pogonip Greenbelt an amazingly beautiful place that renews my energy, fuels my curiosity, and, each visit, shows me something new. It is so nice to keep going back to the same places for the last 33 years…to check out favorite trees, familiar meadows, patches of fleeting wildflowers that return each spring, and ancient woodrat houses. Behind this natural beauty is a web of relationships mediated by the City of Santa Cruz Parks Department and guided by the Pogonip Master Plan.

Our Pogonip Vision

In 1991, the Pogonip Task Force formulated the following vision statement for the Pogonip Greenbelt:

Pogonip is a place to be appreciated for its natural beauty, habitat value and serenity, in contrast to the built environment. Pogonip should provide the community with education and recreation opportunities that are environmentally and economically sustainable.

Weighing the Vision

Since 1991 and the subsequent adoption of the Pogonip Master Plan, how have we done with stewardship of this amazing 640-acre greenbelt? In short, we don’t know. There are no publicly available monitoring reports for anyone to understand how ‘habitat value’ has fared or whether people find ‘serenity’ by visiting there. The City’s Pogonip webpage for some reason posts a link to a private recreational organization’s article on the property, which suggests avoiding areas due to dangerous heroin dealers- that doesn’t sound serene to me. We do know that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ so judging whether or not that part of the vision statement has been realized is too subjective.

The second part of the vision statement emphasizes sustainability, but nowhere in the document are there any metrics for judging how sustainability might be monitored. One would assume that environmental sustainability metrics for recreational opportunities would include at least soil erosion, wildlife disturbance, and invasive species or pathogen spread.

Updating the Vision

Nearly 30 years later, in 2020 the City created the more recent and very poorly done “Santa Cruz Parks Master Plan 2030” which well reflects the changing nature of City politics…to business-minded anti-environmental politicians. This plan emphasizes Park ‘assets’ – trails other types of development potential of the property – somehow overlooking sensitive habitats that were clearly delineated in the Pogonip Master Plan. It does not provide an updated vision or any new data to help us understand how well Pogonip is faring.

Don’t Yell ‘FIRE!’

The Pogonip Master Plan rightly acknowledges the importance of managing the property for wildfire, prescribing an array of management activities. Search “Pogonip Fire” on the internet and you’ll be able to peruse the many recent fires in that greenbelt. Here’s a list of the 9 easy to find ones:

July 14, 2009 – unknown acresJuly 23, 2021 – ½ acre
July 13, 2015 – 3 acresOctober 15, 2021 – 2 acres
November 7, 2018 – ? acresOctober 16, 2021 – 2 fires, ? acres
June 20, 2020 – 2 acresJune 4, 2022 – ½ acre
November 8, 2020 – 1 acre 
Recent Fires in Pogonip’s Extremely Flammable Landscape

Pretty Neat Map

Here’s a map of from the 1998 Master Plan – it has a lot of interesting things on it. First, it illustrates the ways the City was planning on managing the property for fire. Along fire roads, every 10 years the City was going to thin and prune limbs. They were also going to do prescribed burns, mow and graze. They haven’t grazed or done any prescribed fire…and the mowing hasn’t been nearly that extensive. 

Pogonip Master Plan’s Interesting Map

It is also interesting to note that there are wetlands mapped in the Upper Main Meadow…right where leaders of the Homeless Garden Project have said that there weren’t any wetlands.

Pogonip and You

This greenbelt property deserves your attention. I advise you to visit and enjoy it – there is a lot going on with wildlife, views, and amazing smells of autumn. You can join the occasional volunteer days to help do restoration- one is coming up on October 29 (email me if you’re interested)! Also, why not ask your City Council members what’s going on with the studies in the Lower Main Meadow- the area slated for the Homeless Garden Project; there were going to be lead contamination studies and a development plan by the Garden folks. Also, you might ask the City what they are doing to assure that the property is safer for fire: why don’t they graze or do prescribed fire…what about more mowing? Finally, wouldn’t it be nice to get periodic updates from Parks on the state of our Greenbelt, including how environmentally sustainable recreation is being managed…and whether the habitat values are improving or degrading?

-this article reprinted from its original location at Bruce Bratton’s online BrattonOnline.com blog- a treasure for our local community…please subscribe, donate/support!

Golden Crowned Sparrow and Germinating

Two weeks back brought the Fall Equinox, a surprising germinating rain, and the return of golden crowned sparrows. In such a short time, the season has shifted between summer and fall and all around us nature is transforming accordingly.

Fall Equinox

In case you don’t follow such things…a little about the significance of Fall Equinox. The first day of Fall was September 22, 2022. The very moment that the sun was shining directly above the Earth’s equator was at 6:04 pm that day. After that, the sun has moved south of the equator, and the days have become shorter than the nights. This week, daylight is shortening 2 minutes and 23 seconds each day. Here are sunrise and sunset times for Monday October 3rd through Wednesday October 6th, so you can see what’s going on:

DaySunriseSunset
   
Monday 3rd  7:07 am6:52 pm
Tuesday 4th7:08 am6:47 pm
Wednesday 5th7:08 am6:46 pm
Thursday 6th7:09 am6:44 pm

Germinating Rain

That equinox week, an unusual storm brought much of our area enough rain to germinate annual grassland plants. Three-quarters to an inch of rain is all it takes to green up the grasslands. In the forest, redwood sorrel perked up, a newly lush green carpet under the towering redwoods. Curiously, I didn’t catch the ‘petrichor’ smell this round.

First Rains – What Next?

The shift to the rainy season demands attention. Our rainy season coincides with shorter days and a decline in average daily temperature. Cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers are what typify the rare Mediterranean climate regions like where we live. The wisdom of this area suggests that we must be prepared for the onset of stronger rains by October 15th, the average date of the first rainy storms.

Slow it Sink it Spread it

We prepare by making sure that things don’t runoff. “Slow it, sink it, spread it” is the rainfall mantra for our dry climate. Our job is to slow down rainfall so that it has time to infiltrate into the soil. We build raingardens to help sink the rain into the soil. Where we can’t sink it in small areas, we spread the flow out onto larger areas to give it more chance to slow and sink…and less chance to erode the precious soil which is impossible to replace, and which can pollute streams.

First Flush

Rain isn’t the only thing that runs off with the advent of the rainy season: the first flush of rain carries with it a whole summer’s worth of accumulated pollution. The first flush, as the runoff from the first rainfall is called, is the most polluting runoff event of the year.

A Legacy of Runoff Monitoring, Disappearing

There used to be a program led by the Coastal Watershed Council that organized volunteers to sample the first flush runoff from municipal drainages from many cities around the Central Coast, including Santa Cruz. That ‘First Flush’ program gradually degraded and then apparently disappeared – one wonders if the very concerning data were the reason.

In the early years, the program actually sampled the first flush, but it later curiously shifted to sampling in summer months. What continued was something the group calls ‘Snapshot Day’ in early summer, after one would expect that rains had cleansed drainages and runoff declined; curiously, even that program found many areas of polluted runoff concern.

The First Flush monitoring program highlighted high concentrations of pollutants, especially phosphorous but also zinc and copper, which are toxic at the concentrations they documented. In 2003, the First Flush monitoring report suggested that all the sites had runoff that was toxic to mussels, the indicator species used to assess water quality. In subsequent years, that measure was excluded, and the reports became more and more difficult to interpret. Then, the program gradually declined in scope, and reports after 2016 are not in evidence on the Coastal Watershed Council’s website.

The Return of the Golden Crowned Sparrow

I have written another essay about golden crowned sparrows, but want to give you a synopsis and a few more interesting facts. I also hope that you will welcome the return of this species to your neighborhood. This species has a very distinct call that will help you to recognize them. I woke last Wednesday morning to the smell of fresh rain and to that distinct song. Flocks of golden crowned sparrows had returned to my yard! They had flown all the way from Alaska. Bruce Lyon at UCSC has shown that the birds have a good survival rate to return to the same shrub patches that they occupied the prior winter. I keep hoping that I can find the time to get to know the behavior and color patterns of enough of the 40 or so birds that flock around my house to recognize them when they return.

These sparrows are grazers, though when they arrive from their journey south they mainly eat seeds for a bit. Their grazing helps to create big barren areas at the edges of shrubs adjoining grasslands; the taller the adjoining bush, the farther out the bare patch extends. Golden crowned sparrows also graze my vegetable garden: soon, I will have to cover up anything they like, a drastic switch from the summer. I will guard my winter greens crop – kale, collards, chard, arugula, and lettuce – until early April when they depart.

For a while, I thought the golden crowned sparrows would leave at Spring Equinox just to keep things simple. After all, if they always arrive at Fall Equinox, why wouldn’t they leave at a similar time?  I haven’t kept a good logbook of their departures, but I’ve been tricked several times when they stopped calling right around my house. It turned out that the flocks move out to graze the deep lush cover crops in the farm fields nearby before taking off for Alaska and British Columbia where they spend their summers.

In Closing

Although we’ve had a germinating rain, we don’t know what the future holds…the past 2 years have had curious weather phenomena: rain followed by hot drought, grasslands drying out and then regreening. This year, there is a strong La Niña in effect – in recent years, this meant drought. The last two years had heavy duty heat waves right up to Thanksgiving when the first big rain occurred.

So, we may get some more time to prepare for the First Flush and the onset of the rains. Do what you can…create or maintain your raingardens – water them if you can to prepare them to filter runoff.

While the golden crowned sparrow friends are around, I hope you will say hi to them and appreciate their rainy season song.

Welcome the Fall!

-this post originally published by Bruce Bratton in his infomative BrattonOnline.com weekly blog: check it out!

Earth Management Without Data

“I don’t need to know anything more. I know all I need to know.” This is how most of the key people around us approach Earth Management. Is that frightening?

Santa Cruz County has a lot of conservation lands, and those lands are critical for our prosperity. 20% of Santa Cruz County is conservation land. We rely on those lands to provide us water, clean air, and geologically stable slopes. Conservation lands also support recreation, giving County residents reprieve and healing. Open space supports life that is intrinsically valuable and will sustain an elevated quality of life for people on this planet for generations to come. Natural area parks attract tourists, fueling an annual $1 billion income for businesses and supporting 14% of local jobs.

Does Park Management Matter?

It matters how conservation lands are managed. If natural areas recreation is mismanaged, studies have shown that wildlife will disappear, degrading parks visitor experience and the quality of life for county residents. In the long term, collectively these declines endanger the future of humans. Poorly managed recreation also makes for less safe and less pleasant parks user experiences. Mismanaged conservation lands result in eroding trails, increasing safety risk for visitors, reducing the water holding capacity of the land, and degrading habitats including filling wetlands and waterways with sediment. When conservation lands managers mismanage fuels, many are endangered by increased fire risk. If they don’t correctly manage timber operations, livestock, or farming on conservation lands, there could be increased fire risk, more spread of pathogens and weeds, erosion, and degradation of plant and animal life. Problems originating on conservation lands are a burden to surrounding landowners who are threatened by fire, weeds, reduced water quality, trespass, and poorly managed wildlife. Conservation lands were often targeted for acquisition to conserve rare species, but if those species aren’t well managed, they will increasingly deserve State or Federal endangered species status; this increases the regulatory burden of private property owners whose land has habitat for those species.

So Little Data…

Very few people make the decisions about how to manage the County’s conservation lands…these folks don’t have the necessary data to inform their decisions…and one wonders whether they want more data. There are fewer than 30 people in decision making roles for all of Santa Cruz County’s conservation lands. None to very few of those people have formal training in conservation lands management. When the folks planning the North Coast section of the Rail Trail were gathering data for recreational use of North Coast parks, they discovered that there were no reliable data for the adjoining 45,000 acres of conservation lands. They couldn’t find data about how many people were using parks where or when. They found no data on the repair status of the infrastructure (parking lots, trails, restrooms, etc) supporting those parks. Of the dozens of rare and endangered species on that landscape, only a handful have been regularly surveyed so we have no idea of the health of most species’ populations. There are no data on what visitors hope to experience versus what they actually encounter. This leads me to ask…do conservation lands managers want more data…how would we know?

The Elusive Need for Data

The first place one would expect to find conservation lands managers’ expressed data needs is on the web pages of their agencies. For example, California State Parks maintains a statewide ‘natural resource management’ webpage. On that page, the agency curiously notes: “California State Parks…supports scientific studies by universities and other researchers who use state parklands as sites for conducting studies designed to help us understand the ecological health of a park.” Note that this verbiage avoids stating that such research could help inform management. Nowhere on the webpage can you find out how Parks supports science. I have not been able to find a publicly available list of prioritized data needs nor science plans that would help to guide data collection prioritization for any conservation lands managers in the County. The Bureau of Land Management, managers of a sizeable conservation property, Cotoni Coast Dairies, apparently does not intend to complete a science plan, which is mandated for all such National Monument designated lands. With a region rife with research institutions, why would conservation lands managers not outwardly seek assistance with data collection and analysis?

The Few, The Proud

I am reflecting on the many conversations I’ve had with conservation lands managers about their priorities, or lack thereof, for data and analysis to inform their management. Many lament the need for more financial resources to support research within their agency; many have also shown suspicion about research that they do not tightly control. In the most recent conversations, two conservation lands managers told me that they had all the information they needed to manage thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County land. Their swagger suggested that they were experts and that they would notice if there was something awry with their management; if they needed to make any changes, they would know what to do. A few years ago, when another manager claimed something similar in a group with which I was a part, a wise colleague responded that humans have thought they knew the right thing to do for thousands of years only to be eventually proven wrong as science progressed. This know-it-all attitude is reflected in reports and programs such as this publication and another one from a central support organization for State Parks, where it is supposed that it is merely necessary to disseminate ‘best practices’ or to train parks employees to implement ‘tested approaches for management.’

Twisted Logic

Try to make sense of the following logical framework, which local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conservation lands management leaders have publicly stated. Although BLM has sufficient information to inform their management…the questions they might have for researchers…whatever they might be (not stated/published)…are not expected to overlap with the interests of researchers. But, even if they could find some overlapping interest, researchers would likely not produce information that would be salient for BLM’s management.

A Beacon of Hope

As a stand-out exception to these trends, the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, a consortium of lands managers working throughout the region, recently completed a data-driven climate adaptation project. But it is not clear if any particular land management agency has officially adopted the project’s findings, which largely either contradict current management or suggest the need for much more study/work before alternate management actions might be considered. So, perhaps there is some hope…

Support What’s Right

Meanwhile, how can we help advocate for better progress with scientific approaches to stewarding the precious conservation lands of Santa Cruz County? Your most likely leverage point is through advocacy organizations. Don’t support an organization that doesn’t align with your values. For instance, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks has a mission that purportedly supports ‘thriving’ parks and ‘conservation’ – support them only if you find that science-based land conservation is a priority. It would be great if other groups were able to help State Parks with their stewardship issues. The California Native Plant Society has a great reputation as having a science-based approach to assisting with conservation lands management through advocacy and partnership. Occasionally, Audubon California will help with such issues. The Nature Conservancy has long been a leader helping other conservation lands managers to be more science-based and data driven with their stewardship work.

As always, please vote for the environment. Ask candidates about how they will help conservation lands managers be more scientific with their approaches to stewardship. These issues touch on elections at every level: city, county, state and federal candidates should all have clear environmental platforms for conservation lands assistance. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County depend on smart practitioners of Earth Management! Let’s help move that forward.

Apples

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about apples and want to share a bit about what I know about this wonderful fruit.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Apples are in the same plant family as roses. When you are eating an apple, you are kind of eating a rose hip, only sweeter. Check out an apple flower and you’ll see a wild rose – five petals and a big bunch of stamens. An apple orchard in flower gives off a dusty rose smell. We’re lucky apples don’t have thorns. Other fruits are in the rose family, too: cherries, apricots, plums…

Apple Blossoms with Honeybee

Apple Lore

Wild apples are found in their genetic birthplace in southern Kazakhstan in the Tian Shan mountains. Apples were domesticated at least 1500 years ago from the wild species Malus sieversii. Bears and people spread that wild thing around far and wide and then folks started messing with it to make better fruit. The result was a cultivated variety with different species names, such as Malus pumila, Malus sylvestris, Malus communis or Malus domestica. If you don’t have a favorite variety of apple, there are plenty to try. Worldwide, there are 7500 varieties grown. Locally, you can try more than 70 varieties at the annual apple tasting at Wilder Ranch. This year’s tasting is on October 8th and hosted by the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers.

Gala Apples – a favorite!

Our Region and Apples

Our region is famous for its apple cultivation. Martinelli’s Gold Medal apple cider has its history in Watsonville. There are still around 2,000 acres of apple trees in the Monterey Bay area and almost all of those apples go to Martinelli juice, which is made primarily of the apple variety Newtown Pippin with some Mutsu (aka Crispin) mixed in. With the many juice taste tests I’ve participated in, Newtown Pippin wins easily, but Mutsu is a close second.  Martinelli is now offering organic apple juice, reminding me of one of the reasons organic agriculture got its boost.

Organic Foods Movement and Apples

One of the earliest boosts for the organic foods movement was due to apples. The Natural Resources Defense Council published a peer reviewed scientific study demonstrating the carcinogenic danger of Alar, a synthetic spray used on apples and found on apples in the store. The news show 60 Minutes caried this story in 1989 and the public quickly stopped buying apples. Lawsuits followed and Congress passed legislation, and then the organic food movement got a big boost.

Growing Apples

It’s not easy to grow any apple for profit but growing organic apples is even more difficult. The labor alone is a wonder. I figure that an organic apple is handled 6 times before you pick one up at the market.

  1. The first touch: fruit thinning

Touch one: fruit thinning. If the farmer is really good, they only touch the fruit a single time when thinning fruit. There can be up to 6 flowers per cluster, and it is best to thin that cluster to one fruit or there are all sorts of problems. Lack of thinning makes for smaller fruit, not a problem if you want juice but a big problem for sales. If you don’t thin enough, there’s too much weight for the apple branches and branches break. Also, without sufficient thinning the tree makes more seeds using more nutrients that then don’t get invested in the next season’s buds. So, you get a tree that bears every other year: aka alternate bearing.

  • Touch two: harvest

Someone has to harvest the fruit from the tree. These apples go into harvest bags that have to get hauled to the sorting table.

  • Touch three: the sort

Apples need to get carefully sorted. You make sure that any insect damaged fruit doesn’t go to the store and that the right sizes are in the right boxes.

  • Touch four: the boxes go into the truck for delivery
  • Touch five: the boxes go off of the truck at delivery
  • Touch six: the apples go on display

Apple Soil

Many of us believe that the key to success in apple growing is good soil stewardship. Apple trees grow best in close association with soil fungi also known as mycorrhizae. The tastiest fungal associate of apple trees is the famous morel mushroom, but I don’t know anyone who has successfully and purposefully grown morels and apples together…it’s a dream. Mostly, the fungi that collaborate with apples don’t make tasty mushrooms but they can help the apple trees absorb nutrients and water. There is also evidence that apple trees are healthier if they are aided by their fungal associates. I’ve learned lots about apple growing from the author Michael Phillips. He swore that placing piles of hardwood chips made from the fine branches of trees was key to a healthy orchard as fungi love that kind of wood and, in turn, feed the trees.

Well-thinned Mutsu Apples: good for cider or sale of large apples

Growing Apples and our Climate

The native habitat of apples is not at all like California, so we have to think carefully about how we manage apples in our climate. One major issue is that California has a hot, dry summer. Kazakhstan’s mountains have moist summers, so either we irrigate apples or plant trees where their roots reach moisture deep in the soil throughout the summer. Full sized apple trees have roots that reach 20’ down; dwarfing rootstock is smaller. Full sized apple tree also try to reach their natural 40 feet height, so despite the deep roots the height of the tree can be a real problem. Shorter trees and dwarfing rootstock means more thirsty trees.

The other problems with growing apples in our region have to do with heat. Many apple varieties need enough ‘chill hours’ to be healthy; a chill hour is one hour less than 45 degrees while the tree is dormant. We don’t get a lot of those right around here (especially with warming winters) and areas south of us on the coast are nearly impossible to grow many types of apples because of that. The other temperature issue is hot roots. Apples don’t like warm roots- too warm and the trees aren’t as healthy. The answer is to keep the understory watered and mulched.

Apple Friends

If you grow an apple tree, you are bound to attract critters. There are always birds wanting to eat the fruit: I get acorn woodpeckers, California scrub jays and Steller’s jays pecking away at fruit. Fallen fruit feed gophers and mice. Gray fox harvest fallen fruit or fruit right from the trees. If you are in town, you might also get opossum, rats, and raccoons doing the same. One of my favorite butterflies raises its young on apple leaves: the California sister. But, there are many other species of butterflies and moths that do the same. Finally, you need to watch an apple tree in blossom to appreciate the number of pollinators that celebrate apple blooming season.

Your Apple Tree

I hope you can appreciate the apple tree a little bit more and maybe you’ll be inspired to help care for one. If you don’t want to grow one yourself, perhaps you can help care for one through many of the community orchard projects happening all over town. At the very least, when you see that apple at the market, now you may appreciate the life that it had before it made it to the sales display table. Each fruit has its own story, but apples have a special place in our local history.

-this post originally published by Bruce Bratton on his extraordinarily useful BrattonOnline.com weekly blog

Summer Flies

Conservationist Mike Splain coined an appropriate measure of the summertime population level of face flies in Big Sur: ‘apocalyptic.’ Many readers who spend any time outside in the summer away from the immediate coast will know the insects of which I speak. They are small surprisingly fast flies that specialize in buzzing into facial orifices. My friend Catherine suggests we call them ‘eye ear nose and throat experts,’ a nod to ENT medical specialists. What they are officially called, in Latin, remains a mystery to me. No one seems to know. When asking friends recently what they call them, I got “dog pecker flies” and a suggestion that they are officially called “eye gnats.”

Face Fly Season

These flies only recently emerged in numbers in the hills above Santa Cruz. The heat seems to explain their population explosions. This past weekend, I was surprised to be bothered by them at sea level in Big Sur. I avoid all inland Big Sur areas after late Spring until well after the first rains when they disappear. Cool rains are their antidote. Once they become numerous, it is impossible to have an outdoor conversation without what we called back east the ‘New Jersey wave’ – an attempt to shoo the flies away with a constant back and forth motion of the hand, especially near your ears. They seem to love jumping into your ear holes.

Secret Bites

This fly bites. You can’t feel their small bodies land, except in your ears, nose, or eyes…but they will land and bite you anywhere that’s exposed. They don’t bite quickly and easily scare away before they bite. If they do get you, they leave a small welt that, for me, is itchy and persistent. If you watch wildlife – deer and rabbits – you’ll see they are suffering greatly from these flies. Deer ears wag back and forth, bunnies blink a bunch.

Mosquitoes

During the summer, in a fair trade for the profusion of obnoxious face flies, we don’t have to be attacked by mosquitoes, which are nearly absent in our Mediterranean climate. You have to be near water in the summertime to have mosquitoes around these parts. Estuaries, like the Elkhorn Slough, have summertime mosquitoes. If you are lucky enough to have a pond to swim in, you will also have mosquitoes. We are most familiar with mosquitoes that have larvae in the water, but we’ve got another type. Once the rain re-wets the soil, a swarm of certain types of mosquitoes emerge which are able to have a life cycle in moist soil.

Horseflies

My second least favorite biting insect (after face flies) is the horse fly, aka deer fly aka doctor fly. At least I know what these are officially called. Not that knowledge is power. We seem powerless against this troupe of pests. In the family Tabanidae, naturalists call them ‘tabanids.’ Country folk from the south through Central and South America call them doctor flies because they are surgeons, painlessly piercing a hole in your skin through which to mop up blood. They hurt when they leave you because their two parted cutting blade proboscis is barbed and those barbs hurt like the Dickens when they pull out…but then it is too late to get even as they fly quickly away.

I once asked someone in Costa Rica if the doctor flies were bad in the forest and he said ‘in places.’ Somehow, both doctor flies and face flies are clustered in distribution: bad in certain places and not so bad in others. When hiking, it seems you walk into packs of horse flies that, like packs of feral dogs, take advantage of your distraction in swatting one so that another can stab you for her meal. Yes, I said ‘her’ because, like mosquitoes, females need protein in blood to make eggs.

Conversely, Fly Friends

Most folks know what a dragonfly looks like but underappreciate the similarly useful predator called the robberfly. Draggonflies grow up in the water; their larval stage fiercely devours other aquatic life, including small fish, mosquitoes, etc. After they emerge in their winged form…the beautiful things we are more likely to recognize… adolescents move far away from water so we see them many places. Dragonflies zip about catching other insects on the wing, controlling things like face flies, mosquitoes, and horseflies.

Unlike dragonflies, Robberflies are arid environment specialists; but, similar to dragonflies, they are aerial predators controlling many of the insects that we would rather do without. As larvae in terrestrial habitats, robberflies prey on all sorts of other life they encounter. As adults, robberflies eat wasps, bees, dragonflies, each other, mosquitoes, and lots of other flying critters. Robberflies are aerial acrobats with relatively long bodies and wings folded over their tops. I find them most recognizable because of their long legs which they use to grab onto prey.

What Good are Flies?

Clouds of face flies… hovering wining mosquitoes… fleet attacks of horseflies…darting dragonflies and the assassin-grabbings of robberflies…just a few examples of the diverse strategies of our invertebrate relatives at making life work.

Why should we like flies? Think of flies as the aerial wildlife that they are. Right there in front of you, all around Santa Cruz, you can observe an aerial ecosystem with prey and predator interactions. Those insects emerge from aquatic or terrestrial systems and can be used as indicators of ecosystem health.  Bugs feed bats, frogs, and birds, critters that most people want in their lives. Certainly, farmers want those bug eating animals doing their crops a favor.

Bug Friends

There are many ways to be bug friendly: don’t go ballistic over the face flies! If I find out what the face flies are…and how folks approach their control…I’ll let you know. Most folks don’t much care about mosquito control as they are close to nonexistent. No one I know has ever figured out how to control horse flies and they aren’t so numerous as to warrant much effort. With time, we may learn how to nurture robber fly populations.

We also want to support organic farming practices that avoid synthetic pesticides which continue to impact the insect world far from farms. As opposed to Europe, the United States still allows neonics, aka neonicotinoid, a type of pesticide that is used in most corn and soybean crops and which has been shown to negatively affect honeybees, so probably also impacts other non-target insects around those vast croplands.

As we are thinking about how we can use fewer pesticides around our homes we can also avoid electronic bug zappers. Seemingly intelligent people are still powering up the UV lights that attract many insects to an electrical killing screen, a bug zapper. The UV light doesn’t attract biting insects but rather kills a host of other insects giving the owners a sick sense of success as the machine makes the zapping noise over and over as more and more insects are fried on the electric screen.

More Bugs!

Think about what you can do to attract more, not fewer, insects around your home: nurture native plants, especially wildflowers that blossom in all seasons. Coyotebrush, an easy to grow shrub, is blossoming and full of insect pollinators right now, in the dry depths of summer. Diverse native plants including ones that blossom at all times of the year will contribute to native insect diversity. If you are a generous donor type, give funds to the Xerxes Society, an incredibly successful and efficient nonprofit group devoted to conservation of invertebrates.

-this post originall published in Bruce Bratton’s amazing weekly blog BrattonOnline.com