conservation

Teach Your Children Well, Part 2

I received lots of great feedback from my column a couple of weeks ago, maybe in part because people resonate with the need for raising our children with love and respect for nature. When we see people damaging nature, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we avoid making new people like that – by reaching out to children, to teach them well. This made me wonder what are core lessons we need for children (and adults!) for being good to nature right here in Santa Cruz. I hope the following is a good start- please send me more ideas for a future, more in depth publication.

News: Apocalypse Cancelled

The most damaging words I hear regularly about nature is how we are doomed. Even generally well meaning and educated people I know enter into what I call the apocalyptic mindset. You’ve probably heard it…maybe even participated in such a dialogue. It starts with, for example, how can we ever address global warming…its such a huge lift…governments aren’t doing anything…oil companies have too much power…people are greedy…the planet is going to be uninhabitable…the human race is going to disappear. This type of conversation seems to always end with ‘the human race is going to disappear,’ sometimes due to disease, sometimes nuclear war, and now sometimes global warming. Maybe we avoid this story with children, saving it for adult conversation, but if you entertain such notions at all, you can bet the children catch on. This story is magical thinking, and the rationale for such stories is beyond my expertise (but, please: ask yourself “why?” if you hear such things). Humans have survived very hard times – through plagues, terrible wars…through ice ages, famines, massive volcanoes, long droughts, etc: it is a safe bet that there will be people around for a very long time…long enough for us to tell a different story, so we think about a longer term presence and the need for earth stewardship.

A Better Story

The different story is supported by evidence near at hand. Go to Pinnacles National Park and watch a condor soar. Take a whale watching boat and see a blue whale. When you drive across Pacheco Pass or tour Pt. Reyes, see the tule elk. All of these species were ‘doomed’ but people decided that they were worth keeping…we changed our behavior, and they are recovering. The better story is of the inherent compassion of humans and our ability to improve how we live with nature. If your better story has people living alongside elk, whales, condors, and mountain lions in a world with grizzly and polar bears, elephants, giant pandas, and coral reefs, then it will inspire us to work together to make it so.

Sunset on the North Coast

Stewarding Soil, Air, and Water

There are, of course, other things to teach the children, such as care for soil, water, and the air. The science of soil formation has been taking place on Santa Cruz’ North Coast for a while, so we are fortunate to be proximate to the story of soil, and how incredibly slowly it is created. The Dust Bowl lessons are long forgotten and chemical fertilizers have been hiding the need for soil, but all the same- soil is sacred and everyone should know that soil loss is a terrible thing, that prime agricultural land is precious to conserve, that soil needs stewardship. All children should know where their food comes from. The same goes for water; I wonder how many appreciate where their water comes from and the care that must be taken so that it isn’t contaminated…thanks to government and rules. And, it is similar for the air. That we have good soil, water, and air are again testaments to the good that humans can do when we work together. But, we can all use some education about what we can do to help keep those situations improving.

For the soil, water and air lessons, here are some field trip ideas. Next winter, go for a walk at Wilder Ranch and see if the soil is covered or if it is washing off into the ocean. Take a trip to Loch Lomond then to an auto repair shop upstream in Ben Lomond; discuss the dangers of petroleum ending up in drinking water. Watch road runoff in ditches next winter and think about what that oily sheen means for water quality and how it might be captured. Stand next to a busy street and smell the air, talk about what is in tail pipe emissions and where that stuff goes and what it does. To have these kinds of conversations might take some homework- how many of us can have informed conversations about these simple and everyday situations? If children knew more about these things, would it help?

Non-Humans

Children should know about living well with non-human animals. Often, kids are introduced to domesticated animals…and too often they share their parents’ misconceptions about how best to care for and train those pets. Perhaps family time discussing well vetted videos about living with pets is in order. Meat eaters have an obligation to have some honest conversations about how livestock are raised and how they come to the plate. Field trips may be in order on that front. A little more on the wild side is the need for children to understand the host of issues from animals that aren’t domesticated that tag along with human civilization – termites, Argentine ants, roaches, stray cats, rats, mice, pigeons, starlings, etc. Just around the corner is another teaching subject: native wild animals which are doing perhaps too well at adapting to human ecosystems, such as ravens, crows, gulls, jays, racoons, etc. By learning about these and the invasive animals, perhaps children will learn to be more tidy and perhaps they’ll figure out other ways to mediate the impacts of these species. Into the real wild,  children need to learn about the needs of wildlife – for habitat, landscape connectivity, peace, respect, and for the science needed to better plan for conservation.

Santa Cruz’ North Coast

Children Becoming Citizens

As age appropriate, children will one day be old enough to need education about how the above concepts enter the civic world. They will need to understand how land management agencies do or do not protect open space for wildlife. They will need to understand how clean air and water regulations are promulgated, incentivized, and enforced. And, it would be good to teach them how to critically think about the environmental issues they encounter and how to seek credible information to inform their thinking. Are these issues addressed in schools adequately? How else might we help children to understand these issues so that they are engaged citizens?

Engaging

Nature brings peace, so perhaps the most important lesson for children is how to experience nature. I see families taking talkative strolls with children, but few parents sitting quietly in nature with their young ones. With luck, children should be able to witness a bird building a nest and feeding its young. They should see tadpoles and then tadpoles with legs. We all feel delighted to see a fox or coyote pounce on prey. There’s a fascination to watching the dusky footed wood rat taking a huge mouthful of twigs to its 4’ wide stick home. There are salmon swimming upstream to spawn in nearby creeks during the early winter. Giant whales are lunging into schools of anchovies close to boats that leave every day from local harbors. None of these things are easy to see as chance encounters. Like all good education, it will take some work, but it is worth it.

The more time we spend with children sharing these types of lessons, the better the chance of future generations saying ‘we are sure glad that people figured out how to restore beavers!’ or ‘wow- look at that tule elk!’ Richer lives and a better planet require us collectively to raise children who are eco-literate. Please do your part, even if you aren’t a parent.

-this article appeared first in Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com weekly blog.

Teach Your Children Well

Five shovels, five rakes, and ten of us sweating and smiling as we worked to restore trails in UCSC’s Upper Campus Natural Reserve. For a few years in the mid-1990s, UCSC undergraduate volunteers joined me, Campus Reserve Steward, one Saturday a month to reverse the harm that hundreds of mountain bikes were causing. We spent the most time along 7 Springs Trail and the Interpretive Trail. Both trails were off limits to bicyclists and clearly signed; they still are. These are very sensitive ecological areas replete with wetlands, springs, and highly erosive soils. They have been set aside for teaching and research, visited by classes and sites of long-term forest research. While we worked, we frequently encountered bicyclist after bicyclist, some skidding to avoid hitting the volunteers. Our team was trained and eager to inform the bicyclists about the trails being closed and why. More than half of the bicyclists were aggressive and unfriendly, unwelcoming to such an interaction. We were yelled at, called all sorts of names, and there were occasional threats of violence, and even spitting. I was thrown to the ground and stepped on once by a particularly aggressive individual. Our work to close the trail was regularly and expertly vandalized and signs frequently defaced. This is a dominant culture of mountain biking. These instances are not outliers, the behavior far too common. I have been hearing similar stories from many people for years. Once, I told a person with his son that I would call a ranger if they jumped a gate headed into a closed, sensitive natural area. He responded, “I AM A RANGER!” And I recognized him as one of the head rangers for State Parks…and off he went, a fine example for his son.

Givers Vs. Takers

I recommend reading Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael; one of the things I recall from the book is a characterization of humans as being either “givers” or “takers.” Santa Cruz County has been fortunate to have a historic giving culture. A very large percentage of the County has been set aside as parks or is stewarded by large private landowners who take very good care of their land. There is little area for urban sprawl, but now we are facing the next biggest threat: natural areas recreation, one of the top threats to biodiversity on the planet. Leading the assault are trails advocacy groups, some of which have been at this for decades. There will apparently never be enough new mountain bike trails for the funders of these groups. These groups and others like them around the world are being funded by industry through organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association. Mountain biking trails-building volunteers working for these advocacy groups are spending their free time expanding corporate profits while repairing a small fraction of the damage they’ve collectively caused with their thrill-seeking sport. These are what Ishmael would call ‘takers.’ Together, mountain biking (aka ‘trails’) advocacy groups and the outdoor recreation industry are pressuring every public land management agency in the Bay Area to expand mountain biking trails in an apparent bid to turn every inch of natural area into a high-speed playground, maximizing profits at the expense of the wildlife and the quiet walks once enjoyed by families with small children, bird watchers, and contemplative hikers. On this subject, someone urged me to consider Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

The Corruptors’ Rule: Keep Them Stupid

I suspect that a fraction of those building new trails at Cotoni Coast Dairies innocently think they are doing the right thing. The groups organizing these events certainly won’t educate the volunteers about the dubious nature of their work. They won’t share with them the long and expertly crafted critiques of the park’s planning process by the region’s leading biologists. They won’t tell the volunteers already riding mountain bikes on the trails that a broad coalition of conservation groups oppose using the trails before a biological baseline is collected. They won’t tell the volunteers that their sponsoring group has, without expertise, testified in contradiction to conservationists during the planning process in an apparent bid to gain points, and a sole-source trail building contract, with the BLM. The volunteers, knowingly or not, have become active participants in the commodification of nature. So, they are “takers.”

Our Chance

Conservationists (aka “givers”) point out that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Cotoni Coast Dairies to collect a biological baseline before trail use commences. With this baseline, we can better understand how trail use affects wildlife, plant communities, soils processes, and the spread of invasive species. The property has been very lightly visited by humans for more than 100 years. Because the property is designated as part of the California Coastal Monument and as part of the federal National Conservation Lands network, there are extensive policies that support and even require such a baseline…this level of policy support is absent with any other conservation land in the County. Do the trails building volunteers know that, through their work, they are supporting BLM in shirking critical land conservation responsibilities?

Snap!

I have put these arguments to volunteers of trails groups working at Cotoni Coast Dairies and have been reminded of a series of fallacious arguments that have been trotted out for decades. The most common statement is: “It’s a done deal, trails were approved and are under way, get over it!” This statement ignores the ongoing and active appeal to the planning process by a coalition of conservation groups. And, even without such an appeal, the statement overlooks the need to manage trails forever and land management agencies’ responsibility to adaptively manage trails to avoid impacts to protected natural resources and user conflicts that would favor certain user groups (such as mountain bikers).

Avoid the Trap

In a bid to trap the unwary, some of the leaders of the trails advocacy groups have suggested that their groups are ‘conservation’ groups. If you are confused, ask the leaders of these groups about what is ‘enough’ and what is ‘too much?’ For instance, when will there be ‘enough’ mountain bike trails? What specific metric would indicate too much soil erosion on a given stretch of trail? What, specifically, is too much user conflict- such as how much displacement of families with small children who fear their 3-year-olds getting hit by mountain bikes (like one person recently reported to me)? How specifically will we know when there has been too much wildlife loss due to natural areas recreation? If the trails advocacy group truly had a conservation platform, they would have answers, created through methods of carrying capacity analysis and they would be able to offer threshold limits of acceptable change (‘enough’ or ‘too much’). I have long interacted with these groups, and this is where I see evidence favoring ‘malice’ instead of Hanlon’s razor ‘stupidity.’ With this kind of experience, one might discover which groups are primarily interested in the commodification of nature, and are, thereby ‘takers.’

Past Evidence

In the 1990’s, one of these trails advocacy groups began their ugly but organized, well-funded campaigns to expand mountain biking trails in this region. I was at the table when the group negotiated the opening of the U-Con trail from UCSC to Henry Cowell. They promised volunteers to close and keep closed the myriad of unsanctioned trails bleeding tons of sediment into the San Lorenzo River; they said that they would post volunteers at trail heads to “self-enforce” closure. They did no such thing. I was also there when mountain biking representatives showed up at the first Gray Whale Advisory Committee meeting, having worked with State Parks for a year to prepare detailed plans for an extensive network of new trails through that property (now part of Wilder Ranch State Park) without any understanding of/interest in the extensive areas with sensitive ecology and erosive soils. Because of their intransigence at coming to agreement with Parks and the Committee, there is still no long term trails management plan and no plan for protecting critical sensitive species. A group consulted with me when Nisene Marks State Park General Plan was being drafted and mountain biking advocates were aggressively advocating for more mountain bike trails, in contradiction to permanent deed restrictions against such use….wasting extensive State and private resources and, once again, needlessly dividing our community. More recently, I countered a mountain biking group publicity campaign that sought to educate the public falsely about the ‘need’ for more mountain bike trails because of the purported paucity of such in the County. After correction, they walked back the campaign and it subsequently disappeared. These situations are, in my opinion, more evidence of ‘malice’ rather than ‘stupidity.’

We are Winning

Despite all of this, the ‘givers’ are winning, pushing forward protections for Nature in parks around Santa Cruz. We realize that the vast majority of us want healthy wildlife AND access to natural areas where we can recreate without fear. We reject the politics of division that those whose object is the commodification of nature so enjoy. Together, we won protections for Nisene Marks State Park. We expanded protections prohibiting mountain bikes in extensive wilderness areas of Castle Rock State Park. We created extensive Natural Preserves at Wilder Ranch State Park, thwarting miles of new mountain bike trails. We have (thus far) maintained prohibitions against mountain biking on single track trails at UCSC. A coalition of conservation groups has recently made great headway in improving the poor recreational planning at Cotoni Coast Dairies. With community support, the San Vicente Redwoods conservation coalition is enacting the most progressive recreation and conservation adaptive management regime our region has ever seen. Expanding awareness even forced one mountain biking advocacy group to change their name to seem more PC. And soon, we may have Congressional representative Jimmy Panetta instead of Anna Eshoo- a massive step forward in leadership to better manage the impacts of natural areas visitors to our communities and to wildlife. I have been fielding so many requests to help on these issues that I can’t keep up. Together, we are turning the tide: there is hope that future generations will be able to enjoy peaceful strolls and see sensitive wildlife in our natural areas, after all.

Your Time

Meanwhile, when you consider how to spend your outdoor volunteer time, focus your attention on groups that know how to help you to truly become a ‘giver’– groups like the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and the California Native Plant Society.

-this essay originally published in Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

Recreation vs. Conservation in Natural Areas

We face a quandary for which there are many solutions: the northern region of Santa Cruz County is one of the nation’s top biodiversity hotspots which is increasingly facing one of the largest threats to biodiversity – recreation within conservation areas. Globally, the coast of California is recognized as one of the most important crisis areas where natural areas tourism impact overlaps with critical conservation areas called biodiversity hotspots.

Biodiversity Hotspots

Biodiversity hotspots have been scientifically catalogued in precise ways to direct conservation funding and activities. These areas have particularly high numbers of species limited to small geographic areas, correlating with large numbers of endangered species. Areas with numerous endangered species in different groups receive higher hotspot scores: Santa Cruz County has many endangered species in three groups: ‘herptiles, arthropods, and plants,’ and so is one of only two counties in the nation to receive the highest hotspot score. Similarly, with a larger lens than county boundaries, the San Francisco Bay Area, including northern Santa Cruz County, is recognized as one of the top three biodiversity hotspots in the country. The rationale for using biodiversity hotspot indices for conservation prioritization is so widely accepted that this measure has become the focus of the most funding of any other conservation initiative, a total of $750 million up to 2010. Our region has long benefited from such largesse, including the generous funding to set aside areas like the BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies and POST/Sempervirens Fund’s San Vicente Redwoods conservation areas. And yet, purchasing of land for conservation purposes only begins the process of conservation, which will last many lifetimes. Fortunately, there are many strong protections in place for these areas that help to guarantee that they will long be managed primarily for biodiversity protection.

Wildlife Protected at Cotoni Coast Dairies

There are a host of guarantees for biodiversity protection at the Cotoni Coast Dairies property. In 2017, Obama’s presidential proclamation making the property a part of the California Coastal Monument there are protections for such a breadth of ‘Objects of the Monument.’ Monument designation carries with it mandates for very careful planning, inventory, and adaptive management to assure natural resource protection. In addition, the property has been designated as part of the most protected lands in the Country: National Conservation Lands. In addition, BLM maintains and regularly updates lists of ‘special status’ plants and animals to guide protections on their lands. For those interested in mandates for BLM management for biodiversity on National Monuments, I encourage perusal of their Manual 6220. Using one ‘Object of the Monument’ as an example, the 6220 Manual requires that BLM inventory the dusky footed woodrat on the property and, in collaboration with experts at its National Conservation Lands Office, include in its property-wide science plan specifics about how managers will monitor and adaptively manage the property to assure the species’ protection. Regulations protecting biodiversity on the nation’s highest value conservation lands well reflect the majority of citizen’s interests in protecting wildlife, even if it means personal sacrifice. This is good news for conservation in natural areas because of the natural conflict between recreation and conservation.

Recreational Use is Contrary to Wildlife Protection

There has been much published about the negative impacts to wildlife of recreational use in natural areas, but here are a few illustrations of types of negative impacts. The following species are listed as “Objects of the Monument:” gray fox, bobcat, and mountain lion. Predators such as these three species are well recognized as extremely sensitive to recreational use in natural areas, leading to decreased density and abundance of these types of animals. Researchers working in the Santa Cruz area have noted that mountain lions are substantially sensitive to noises from humans, which reduce their use of recreational areas and lead to changes rippling through the rest of the wildlife community, including increased numbers of mice and potential increased frequency of Lyme disease. But, mammalian predators aren’t the only types of wildlife to be disturbed by recreational use.

The Monument Proclamation also calls out protection for Wilson’s and orange-crowned warblers, downy woodpecker, tree swallow, Cooper’s hawk, and American kestrel. Burrowing owl, golden eagle, tricolored blackbird, and white-tailed kite are also listed as protected on BLM’s special status animals list for California. Some bird species have been shown to be especially ‘flighty’ in the face of recreational use, requiring study and specific trail design to adequately buffer distances to avoid impacts. While the effects on specific species varies, some species can be negatively affected by the mere presence of humans, so, unless specific studies can ascertain effects, scientists suggest that avoiding new trails in natural areas is the best measure for conserving sensitive birds. Grassland birds, such as the burrowing owl, are particularly sensitive to recreational disturbance, perhaps because it is so difficult for these species to hide. There are also studies that would suggest care must be taken to avoid recreational disturbance to species like the California red-legged frog, deer, and native plants.

BLM’s Dilemma

BLM managers of Cotoni Coast Dairies face the many dilemmas of managing land for conflicting visitor uses alongside the conflict between recreational access and nature conservation in an especially sensitive ecological area.  The varying types of recreational users run the gamut from mountain bikers who use trails for the physical thrill of staying upright with speed and obstacles…to more scenery- and/or exercise-oriented mountain bikers and hikers…to more passive recreational users such as wildlife viewers…to photographers and painters…to restorationists…and scientists of natural history. Each user group conflicts with the next and the ones further apart with their expectations conflict even worse. I have not seen a plan by BLM to accommodate or monitor such conflicting uses, which will lead to what is called displacement, mainly of families with children and more passive natural areas users. Instead, BLM managers have shown a personal and strong affinity with the mountain biking community, which is also the agency’s closest ally in advocating for and developing recreational trails designed for their use on the property. On the other hand, BLM managers have turned away from engagement with passive users such as wildlife viewers, restorationists and scientists of natural history. Without welcoming this engagement which would have made up for their professed lack of such capacity, BLM managers are now moving forward with little understanding of the distribution and abundance of species, including those protected by statute. The evident BLM managerial-mountain biking community conflict of interest should be a great concern of those of the public who are concerned with biological conservation.

The Collaborative Management Solution

We should be advocating for an alternate way forward where BLM public engagement staff serve as facilitators of solutions-based approaches to the conflicts between users and between recreational use and natural resource conservation. The first step would be for BLM to adhere to its policy requiring a science plan informed by a baseline inventory of the Objects of the Monument and other special status species; this plan would include a carrying capacity analysis and an adaptive management framework to assure protection of the resources. All of those steps could be done collaboratively with scientists and volunteers as is outlined in BLM’s policy guidance. There have been offers for substantive financial resources to assist with this planning. Instead of hiding its scientific studies as it does now, BLM would proudly share what science it has gathered on a public interactive website. Once completed, the science plan could then be the focus of collaborative management of the property including all interested parties working together with the common goal of conservation of biological diversity while providing recreational access to the maximum extent possible. We are lucky to have a coalition of many groups working to make this vision real, including: Rural Bonny Doon Association, Friends of the North Coast, Sempervirens Fund, and Davenport North Coast Association. Your support of those organizations will help greatly.

-this post originally appeared last week in my weekly column at Bruce Bratton’s weekly BrattonOnline.com

Dead Wood

Such a negative connotation, the term “Dead Wood.” The phrase makes you think about useless things that get in the way, and, in the terrible capitalist production context, unproductive people. Now, turn your mind away from this type of meaning and think instead of the dead wood of forests or the logs floating along in streams or lakes, log rafts in the ocean, or driftwood piled up on the beach. Dead wood in those contexts is what this essay is about. Why might dead wood be ecologically important or how can it be dangerous, and what should we do about it?

Presenting Food for Woodpeckers and Bears

For some, dead wood is promising. Up on the North Coast, I’ve been hearing the cackling calls of “Woody” (aka pileated) Woodpecker, here on the southern end of its range along the coast. Pileated woodpeckers have been well fed since the Lockheed Fire and are about to have great feasts and lots of homes as a result of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. And, it’s not just the pileated woodpeckers- round here there are also hairy, downy, Nuttall’s and acorn woodpeckers that will also benefit from lots of standing Dead Wood. Flickers will also enjoy lots of pecking space in the dead trees where millions of insects are burrowing through trunk and branch or gathering just under exfoliating bark.

How much wood would a woodpeckers peck if the wood were specked upon the ground? Not much. But, if we had bears, they would tear that wood apart pronto. There are big, greasy, tasty grubs deep inside decomposing trees, whether they are standing or fallen over, and bears have the nose to sniff them and the paws to get at them. In bear country, you’ll often see shredded dead trees where bears have been foraging.

Home is Where the Hole Is – Life in the Big Brown Pole

Dead Wood is home to many critters other than the bugs that feast on it. The insects, fungi, and bacteria make the dead wood soft enough to excavate into nest cavities for birds. The list of local nesting birds that need Dead Wood cavities to nest is long (at least 22 species as follows): Western bluebirds, owls- barn, Western screech, Northern saw-whet, Northern pygmy, and spotted… Northern flickers, woodpeckers- hairy, downy, Nuttall’s and acorn…American kestrels, swallows- both violet green and tree…purple martins, ash-throated flycatchers, chestnut backed chickadees, nuthatches: both white-breasted and pygmy…and finally wrens: winter, house, and Bewick’s.  Competing with those native birds for nest cavities are the increasingly burgeoning populations of house sparrows and European starlings. Each of these species has their own particular type of hole, varying in size, habitat, orientation, depth, etc. While the birds are nesting, other critters like cockroaches proliferate amongst the dank nesting material in the hole. After the birds have nested, mice or bats move in.

Dead Wood for Woodpeckers – a roasted large Douglas Fir awaits beneficial reuse

Home is Where the Hole Is – Life in the Rotting Log

Once the log is on the ground, animals scurry to claim it as territory. My favorite find in a rotting log is a rubber boa, a plain brown snake with an unusually wrinkly skin and blunt head. They really like snuzzling into the crumbliest of rotting wood. Another score when exploring rotting wood is the California salamander, an orange and brown bug-eyed friend that squinches into the spaces between bark and wood on fallen timber. Under the logs, there are still more species of snakes, salamanders, and much more. Back inside especially rotten logs, you can find mouse nests- piles of shredded bark, leaves, or grass tucked away to make an excavated tunnel cozy.

Wish we had bears…. photo by J Gilardi

Wood Made Fish Holes

“Logjam” is another term with an unnecessarily unpleasant connotation, somewhat related to “Dead Wood.” Logjams in streams and rivers back up sediment and create waterfalls that carve downwards, creating cooler, deeper pools that fish love. More than that, these chunks of Dead Wood block up streamflow and force flow-carried sediment out of the stream to storage areas in the floodplain. Dead wood moves streams about to scour oxbow pools that are important for frogs, turtles, and salamanders.

Logs a’Hoy!

If that Dead Wood isn’t permanently trapped along the stream or river, it ends up in the downstream lake, estuary, or ocean. Picture the line up of Western pond turtles on a log jutting out into a freshwater lake: that’s their favorite place, basking in the sun ready to drop into the water if they feel unsafe. Logs scattered around an otherwise mud-banked estuary might serve as the solid substrate necessary for oysters and other estuarine organisms. Rafts of logs in the ocean or on rivers are boat hazards before they wash up on beaches. Once on the beach, Dead Wood gets its first nice nickname: ‘driftwood.’ Driftwood on the beach diversifies dunes, creates rare shade and shelter, and captures rafts of seaweed for huge compost piles, fueling insect abundance for foraging shorebirds. I like sitting on driftwood to keep my bottom from getting sandy or wet. Unfortunately, people like to burn up all the driftwood as if it had been just waiting for their bonfires, which create a pall of stinky saltwater smoke downwind.

Burning Log a’Fire

Throughout the fire-scarred forests of California, there are millions of big brown poles waiting to add fuel to the next fires. In the footprint of the Lockheed Fire where the CZU Fire burned, the heat was tremendous, the fire stoked by the Lockheed fire’s Dead Wood. Maybe after a few 10-year interval fires, the Dead Wood will be all cleared out and a forest can regrow more safely. Meanwhile, my hypothesis is that Dead Wood is mostly fuel for the next fire, at least around here.

Michael Uhler illustrating a post fire ecology with Dead Wood a’plenty in the background: future fuel for future wildfire

Smokey the Bear

Now, what if we had bears? Would the log-shredding bears help with the decomposition process and at least somewhat reduce wildfire danger? Maybe that’s what made people think up Smokey the Bear to begin with.

Goldilocks and the 3 Bears

What’s just the right amount of dead wood? None of the native cavity nesting birds I mentioned are common enough to say we have enough standing dead wood, anywhere. In the streams and rivers, not enough logjamming is a problem for fish; too many logjams in the wrong places are a worry for human infrastructure (bridges, roads). Boaters don’t want any floating logs, at all. My friends the rubber boas need some rotting logs to replace the burned up ones in the CZU fire scar. Is there anything we can do to make sure we have the right amount of dead wood in the right places? Sure there is.

What are We to Do?

Wouldn’t it be nice if society supported more scientific inquiry? When was the last time you heard this question for a Congressional candidate: ‘How will you work to support funding for ecological science?’ A good answer would include federal funding for the National Science Foundation. Would you consider supporting the candidate with the best answer with your donations and your vote? We need better answers to the Dead Wood questions…and support for organizations like the Coastal Commission, CAL FIRE, parks agencies, land trusts, and state and federal wildlife agencies that integrate the Dead Wood answers into their decision making. Its not what you thought it was: we all need Dead Wood.

-this post reprinted from my weekly column at Bruce Bratton’s online blog Brattononline.com

The Landscape We Need

Imagine you are a mountain lion, a badger, or a burrowing owl making your way around our region. Curiously, people often say, ‘I can’t imagine,’ but I contend that our imaginations are more powerful than that. We can imagine a lot if we have enough information to work with and give our minds the room to roam. We can put ourselves in the place of other species if we want, but only if we can face the pain that such empathetic contemplation may bring. We have left wildlife so little, but we have the power to restore healthy populations of wildlife for future generations.

Big Clever Cats

We have the great fortune to share this landscape with wild lions. To put yourself in the lion’s mind, imagine being a young male learning to walk from Aptos to Scotts Valley, getting across roads, keeping away from people, trying not to make their dogs bark, and staying under constant cover of forest. That young lion will also be learning, by scent, where girl lions are and where other murderous males have claimed territory.

Cat Map

Lions know how large to guard territories against one another to keep sufficient food for their families. Fresh deer are needed, one a week for each mature lion. A human hunter would be challenged to keep that pace up; it takes a lot of roaming. Mountain lions move under cover of trees, they shy away from moving around in the open if they can help it. They travel tree filled canyons, wooded ridges, and trails through the forests. To them, those places are like our road network- they must make mental maps as quickly as their young minds can do it, and those maps must keep receiving layer after layer of new information – especially where other lions prowl.

Badger

Two weeks ago, I was very pleased to find many badger-dug burrows in grasslands along the North Coast. Badgers look at the landscape in the opposite way that a mountain lion might. Where lions see woodlands as their comfy place, badgers prefer grasslands – maybe in part because of the lions in the forests! To imagine moving around the landscape like a badger, think about walking from the grasslands above Watsonville to the grasslands along the North Coast by staying mainly in grasslands, each night digging a burrow to sleep in, finding enough gophers and ground squirrels to eat along the way, getting across roads and never being seen by a human. That’s some tough going!

Burrowing Badgers

The burrows I saw were not fresh, and I couldn’t find a den. The badger foot tracks had been washed entirely away by a prior pouring rain. Probably this was a wandering individual, who kept moving after staying for a few weeks. Males disperse widely – even through forests. Someone was surprised to see a photo of a badger on their wildlife camera in a north coast redwood forest a few years back. I haven’t heard of anyone finding a badger burrow in a forested area.

Like vampires, badgers must be underground by daylight. Digging burrows is best done in sandy soil. And so, badgers’ mental maps include not only the network of grasslands, but also the subset of grasslands with homey sandy places where they can easily dig for food or make burrows.

Santa Cruz Badgers: Gone

There used to be badgers near Santa Cruz, not that long ago. They still occasionally happen through. When UCSC’s Chris Lay compiled local badger sightings and analyzed this species’ local disappearance, he concluded that roads explained badger demise. Roads are a big challenge to badgers. The frequent median barriers popping up on local highways have been important in saving human lives, but to badgers they are sure death. Conservationists in Great Britain, where badgers are held in perhaps higher esteem than here, have gone to great lengths to make sure badgers are now able to cross highways – laying down fences to guide badgers to the safety of underpasses.

Burrowing Owls

Burrowing owls probably see the landscape much like badgers- their homes are also in grasslands. Unlike badgers, though, burrowing owls navigate landscapes on the wing, so maybe roads aren’t so lethal. These wide-eyed, cute, bobbing, yellow-legged owls also used to frequent the meadows near Santa Cruz, but the last nesting colony was paved over by the administrators of UCSC. Now, burrowing owls are wintertime visitors only, travelling from their summer nests in inland grasslands. I wonder if burrowing owl families that once nested along the coast remember their coastal habitats and have been leading one another back to the warmer coastal grasslands each year? 

Owl Trip

To imagine a burrowing owl flight to the coast, you’d be starting probably in the grasslands east of San Jose. As the nights get chillier and shorter, something in your burrowing owl mind makes you want to fly towards the coast. One long flight across the buzzing Silicon Valley city scape blanketed by nasty air pollution and you might land in one of the few remaining grasslands on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains…. or you might keep flying all the way to the coast. This flight would be different than most of your flights all summer long, which have been much shorter. While you are taking this long flight, you keep alert to the increasing threat of peregrine falcons…listening for the alarm calls of other birds. As you get towards the coast, you feel anxiety as each year the available habitat has been reducing: will you find a place with good cover for the winter?

Coastal Burrows

A month or so ago, I went to UCSC’s East Meadow to see burrowing owls but couldn’t find any sign of them. I looked for the owl’s wintertime homes, but they were gone: the many ground squirrel burrows in the East Meadow are gone and I couldn’t find any. In fact, there were no ground squirrels AT ALL! Anyone know what happened to them? Please let me know if you do. Long ago, UCSC administrators destroyed the last burrowing owl nesting area in the County, and more recently they destroyed the burrowing owl wintertime burrows at Terrace Point, so I’m suspicious about this new loss. Now, the UCSC wintering owls must join their friends to hide in culverts or pipes along the North Coast for their winter homes.

Linkages

“Progressive” Santa Cruz is working on its first project expressly acknowledging the need for wildlife movement across this landscape, but much more is needed, and we can all help. Informed by much science, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is working on creating a wildlife tunnel near Laurel Curve on Highway 17. To work, the land on either side of the tunnel must also be wildlife friendly. This corridor is in a wooded area and designed especially for mountain lion movement…maybe badgers can find it, too! Further South and East, groups are making great progress at protecting the wildlife movement corridor between the Mount Hamilton Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains through the Coyote Valley. This corridor relies on existing bridges under Highway 101 and also envisions some improved crossings over the Monterey Highway, which has median divider in many places. Badgers need this corridor to get to our region, but many other wildlife species could use this corridor- maybe even tule elk! These efforts need our financial support. We can also help wildlife movement by supporting better planning for protected wildlands, such as opposing the Homeless Garden Project’s newly hatched plan to move into the Upper Main Meadow of the Pogonip…or the seemingly continuous push to increase the numbers of trails crisscrossing parks. I hope you will take some time to imagine how your favorite species of wildlife travels across what’s left of this highly fragmented landscape… and how you can help restore the landscape we all need.

This essay reprinted from the one I original published via Bruce Bratton at BrattonOnline.com

The Chaparral of Santa Cruz County’s Highest Neighboring Mountain: Loma Prieta

Essay originally published in Bruce Bratton’s weekly online blog BrattonOnline.com.

Many of us are drawn to mountain tops if not physically at least visually, some even spiritually. Botanists go to see the unique flora. Some botanists are “peak baggers” along with many others. There is no “bagging” Loma Prieta, but the flora around it is very special. And the peak has been sacred to some but has been defiled by others, now buzzing with communications towers that make you want to stay far away.

At 3,790’ Loma Prieta towers above Santa Cruz, the highest peak of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The mountain is near the Santa Clara/Santa Cruz County Line and looks over the nearby San Andreas Fault. More people know the name of the peak from 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake – the epicenter was just west of the mountain.

Recharge

It snows up there almost every year and the rain falls in torrents because the highest peaks catch the most rain. There is little soil near Loma Prieta, but lots of well drained rock. There are patches of sandstone surrounded by a massive amount of mudstone. Craggy dark sandstone outcrops accent the slopes near Loma Prieta. Roadcuts reveal fascinating patterns formed by the nearby faulting. The mudstone and sandstone rocks were created by sediment washed into the Pacific from ancient California’s rivers, laid down in layer after layer, with different layers of slightly different colors, textures, and thicknesses. Tectonic movement has pitched those layers this way and that, sometimes in great undulating waves, other times tilted this way and that. The roadcut rock is fascinating mosaic art.

Rain soaks through these fractured stones, bubbling out below to form the headwaters of streams that provide drinking water for hundreds of thousands. Looking out from the mountain, you see the steep and thickly wooded Soquel Creek canyon or turn towards the other side and look down Uvas Creek that leads to the Uvas Reservoir and onto the Pajaro River, or gaze north into streams headed to the Lexington Reservoir.

Views

I try to visit the area’s peaks once a year to get my bearing and appreciate this place. And, I can see most of those peaks from Loma Prieta: Mount Diablo, Mount Hamilton, Fremont Peak, Devil’s Peak, and Ben Lomond Mountain are visible from there. A while back, I would visit Loma Prieta to get a good view of the region’s fireworks on July Fourth. Back then, the shoreline of the Monterey Bay was lit by many displays and there were many displays in towns all the way to San Francisco and beyond. It is a delightful place to see the entire Monterey Bay and a huge expanse of the sparkling Pacific Ocean. But really, I go for the plants.

This Chaparral’s Shrub Diversity

My favorite plants to visit up that way are two subspecies of at type of manzanita that is normally found a long ways north, but which have outlying patches on sandstone near Loma Prieta. The Hoary (A. canescens ssp. canescens)and Sonoma (A. canescens ssp. sonomensis) are beautiful silvery shrubs with smooth red bark so dark it is almost black. I visited last weekend and it was just starting to blossom, some shrubs had pure white and others very pink flowers.

This is a very shrub diverse area. In a short distance, in addition to the above, you can find three other manzanitas: Santa Cruz manzanita (A. andersonii) and brittle leaved manzanita (A. crustacea ssp. crustacea) and Rose’s manzanita (A. crustacea ssp. rosei). And, the ceanthus that normally accompany manzanitas are equally diverse with 5 species also occurring in close proximity to Loma Prieta: warty leaved ceanothus (C. papillosus); blue blossom (C. thrysiflorus var thrysiflous), wavy-leaf ceanothus (C. foliosus var. foliosus), buck brush (C. cuneatus var. cuneatus) and Jim brush (C. oliganthus var. sorediatus). More shrubs still include 3 species of silk tassel – bear brush (G. fremontii), silk tassel (G. eliptica), and ashy silk tassel (G. flavescens), mountain mahogany, pitcher sage, chaparral pea, bush poppy, coffee berry, coyote bush, and on and on. With this menagerie of chaparral shrubs, the scents are awesome as the sun warms the millions of resinous leaves.

…and Tree Diversity

Trees are super diverse up there, too. It is surprising to see a rare local conifer California nutmeg emerging from the chaparral. The canyon live oaks are everywhere in multi-trunked patches resprouting from multiple fires. There is also interior live oak, foothill pine, and knobcone pine. Some trees are odd: the madrones have paler orange bark than normal, the bay trees have more flakey bark, and the tanoaks have longer and or smaller more toothed leaves. The patches of trees are especially thickly festooned with beards of mosses and dense carpets of lichens.

Clearing the Shrubs – the March of Weeds

With the exception of a few patches managed by public parks, most of the area is privately owned, and it shows. A County Planner has told me on many occasions that the County’s policy is to not allow clearing of this rare chaparral type. And yet, you can see the expansive clearing from Highway One. There are immense mansions and squalid trailers, many with massive fire clearance zones. And, there are acres and acres of vineyards and horse corrals as well as sprawling greenhouses.

This network of development and the roads that serve them has badly fragmented this beautiful chaparral, especially in the last 15 years. Human incursions are made evident by aisles and acres of weeds: jubata grass, Scotch and French broom, and acacia are the most evident.

Even with all of the clearing but especially with the influx of flammable weeds along the roads, this area seems likely to burn badly one day.

A History of Fires

Many areas around Loma Prieta have not burned in a long, long time; but there have been recent fires. North and West of Loma Prieta, there are some of the oldest, largest knobcone pines I’ve ever seen, evidence that it has been a long time since fire. South and East of Loma Prieta, are miles of skeletons of trees and shrubs that belie more recent fires. The 2008 Summit Fire (4,200 acres), the 2009 Loma Fire (435 acres), and then the 2016 Loma Fire (4,470 acres) all have scorched areas around Loma Prieta, and all were human caused.

How to Visit

You can visit patches of this unique chaparral in a few parks. Some of this type of chaparral is at Mount Madonna County Park. The more shrub-diverse type is found in the Sierra Azul Preserve managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District at Mount Umunhum, the next peak north of, and not far from, Loma Prieta. The top of Santa Clara County Park’s Uvas Canyon County Park touches the shoulder of Loma Prieta south of the peak. This type of chaparral gets less interestingly diverse but still remains expansive in the upper areas of Nisene Marks State Park, say along the top of Aptos Fire Road.

Agricultural Ecosystems

This is another reprint from my weekly column at BrattonOnline.com, to which I recommend you subscribe, especially if you live near or love Santa Cruz California and want to learn more about what’s happening.

I was going to write this week about a native plant community, but someone made a comment recently that led me to change course, to focus rather on a very dominant ecosystem in our area: row crop agriculture. They said, ‘There are no animals killed in making a meatless burger.’ The statement took my breath away. Apparently, it is time for me to put my thoughts into writing on this subject, long stewing on my back burner.

Sacrifices for Veggie Burgers

Meatless burgers contain agricultural products grown on farms that have killed and are killing animals as an inherent part of their practices. The original clearing of agricultural land caused the greatest outright slaughter of animals. Many animals were crushed by the first land-clearing bulldozers or burnt alive when the natural vegetation was ignited. Some furry critters fled at first only to starve later when they were driven from one already-occupied territory to the next. Perhaps a few lucky larger quick and mobile vertebrate refugees survived. The many smaller, less mobile animals not outright crushed or burned were eventually chopped up with the plough.

After the clearing, crops are planted every year thereafter, and farmers trap, poison, or shoot ‘pests.’ In some cases, farmers fence, net, or otherwise ‘deter’ pests…sometimes entangling animals but always driving wayward animals onto roads or into the mouths of smart predators that take advantage of deterrence methods with their hunting regimes. Farmland becomes a hazard for wildlife, effectively removing agricultural lands from anything classifiable as ‘wildlife habitat.’

Yummy Bananas

Many of us have heard the tropical horror stories related to agricultural expansion. Giant farms have been expanding, destroying tropical forests, the most diverse of ecosystems, especially to produce soybeans and palm oil. Many areas have already been cleared, and the ongoing tropical agriculture is regularly killing thousands of species that are dwindling by the day. A friend told me of his first job on a tropical banana farm in the 1970’s. As a teenager trying to earn money to support his family, he took the closest job he could find as a laborer on one of the giant banana farms in Central America. His supervisor gave him small plastic cups to suspend from the banana trees and told him to fill the cups with a viscous liquid poured from a large bottle he was told to carry with him. He was told to return each day to refill the cups. Returning to those cups, he clambered over piles of a diverse array of dead bats that had ingested the poison liquid he was placing in the cups. This method of reducing the fruit pollinating bat claw marks (just aesthetic damage) on the bunches of bananas has since been replaced by covering the bunches with protective plastic bags impregnated with pesticides. But banana farms are still sprayed with deadly chemicals and are devoid of even the shadow of the tropical life found in natural systems.

Shade Grown

Even though we might turn to purchasing organic bananas and even certified organic, fair trade locally roasted coffee, those organic crops are grown on lands where tropical wildlife is largely obliterated. Organic coffee and bananas are grown in full sun, the rainforest cleared to make way for the farms. “Shade grown” coffee certification is largely a sham without defensible standards for conserving tropical forests and associated birds, except for the Smithsonian’s bird friendly coffee certification which is effectively unavailable in stores in Santa Cruz and so must be ordered over the internet.

Ranching to Vineyards

Locally, the story is little different. Agriculture is expanding in our area mostly from conversion of grazing land to vineyards, a process that does not trigger environmental review because both activities are considered agricultural. Oak woodlands and old growth grasslands that supported free-roaming wildlife and sequestered carbon are being converted to vineyards where wildlife is commonly fenced out and wildlife inside the fences trapped and killed. Tilling the converted grazing land releases long-sequestered carbon, adding to global warming.

The Local Veggie Farming Slaughter

Once agricultural land is in production, routine practices actively kill or deter wildlife and passively degrade wildlife habitat. Driving through the Pajaro or Salinas Valleys, look for the upside-down white plastic Ts at the field edges: those are poison bait stations with poison designed to kill small animals that venture into the fields. Traps or poisons are used to kill any animals once they find their way further into fields. Organic farmers often use traps for gophers with regular trap patrols as part of their daily operations. Passive forms of wildlife killing may seem a little less aggressive. In both conventional and organic agriculture at any scale, the mowing and tilling of crop areas leaves mutilated (hopefully quickly killed) critters in the wake of tractors: snakes, toads, frogs, lizards, salamanders, birds, mice, moles, shrews, and voles are all decimated. Polluted runoff from both organic and conventional agriculture is another issue. Agricultural irrigation runoff into Elkhorn Slough has the highest levels of fertilizer in the US, equivalent to dumptruck load of fertilizer a day, causing terrible contamination of the state’s second largest estuary.

Ranching Conservationists

In contrast to the impacts of these cropping systems, I look to coastal prairie fed, pasture raised cattle that are managed in such a way to restore local ecosystems and provide food for those who would eat it. I’m not arguing against the need to reduce the amount of meat the world’s population eats: clearly, there is a lot of animal agriculture that is terrible. However, many ranchers locally are doing a world of good for wildlife and plant diversity with their coastal prairie stewardship. Globally, ‘abandonment’ of grazing in Spain, France, Britain, and other places with diverse grasslands has caused species loss and ecosystem degradation. Humans have been learning how to manage livestock to mimic evolutionary disturbance regimes that maintain wildlife and keep grasslands diverse and healthy. Most ranchers I know are enthusiastic about the wildlife they steward; many are working with conservationists to co-manage for biological diversity. This situation makes the contrast between veggie and beef burgers a little more interesting.

Wildlife Friendly

There is real potential for cropland management to be more sensitive to wildlife. One day our lettuce won’t come with such a legacy of wildlife displacement and death. There are only two wildlife-friendly food certifications that I know about: the Smithsonian’s certification of Bird Friendly Coffee and the relatively new Audubon Society’s certification for bird friendly beef. Taking its normal laudable step beyond the Federal guidelines for organic standards, Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) requires its certified members to maintain a conservation plan to address habitat stewardship. But CCOF lacks an ecologist to review or advise on such plans, so this effort mostly falls quite short of what is needed. Let me know if you know other attempts to address these gaps! Meanwhile, what are we to do? 

Ask a Farmer

The thing to do is ask the farmer who you support about their conservation practices. Already you probably understand the importance of supporting farmers directly by shopping at a farmer’s market. When you buy from them, you might ask how they take care of wildlife on their farm. The answer should take longer than either you or the farmer wants to take; shorter answers are probably insufficient and will be quick evidence that the farmer isn’t practicing wildlife friendly agriculture. Sensitive management of irrigation, runoff, ponds, hedgerows, cover crops, fallow fields, roads, and non-crop areas should almost all be part of any wildlife-friendly farmer’s skill base. And, they would have to explain a little about what ‘sensitive management’ means in each case – the stories aren’t too complex if someone knows their stuff, but the telling will take a little time. We need those stories. We need those conversations. Future generations will depend on farmers who integrate nature with their crops.

Chalks Chaparral

– this is another reprint from my post to Bruce Bratton’s most insightful brattononline.com weekly.

The Chalks stretches from above Año Nuevo into Big Basin south through the Lockheed property and then down many tiny ridges above Scott Creek and the Swanton community. Even before the CZU Fire, the ridges appeared from afar curiously white, like chalk. The earliest Old World explorers wrote in their log books about that striking whiteness. The barren white ridges are on account of extremely poor soil, mostly fractured rock. that limits the ability for vegetation to thrive. The vegetation that can make it is a unique type of chaparral.

Most people see The Chalks on their drive south on Highway One just north of Año Nuevo, South of Franklin Point as they pass the Coastanoa Resort. Look inland and you’ll see lots of broken ridges: those are The Chalks.

Much of The Chalks is on private property. Some is on what is known as “Lockheed Martin Space Systems” at the very end of Empire Grade. That area also contains a 1000-acre private property called “Lehi Park” a recreational and camping spot owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For public visitation, you’ll have to wait until Big Basin opens again…it’s still closed due to the last big fire. Meanwhile, you must settle for viewing from afar.

The Pines

At the top of the steep and erosive bluffs north of and above Waddell Creek, wind-blown, lichen strewn Monterey Pines form the chalks chaparral overstory, but their genes might make them something other than pure Monterey Pines. This is the home of one of only five native Monterey Pine stands. The others are on the Monterey Peninsula, around Cambria, and on two islands off of Baja – Cedros and Guadalupe. Monterey pines are the most planted forestry tree in the world, and the seeds of the ‘radiata pine’ created bred for those forestry plantings came from the Año Nuevo stand, where Monterey pine hybridizes with knobcone pine. Monterey pine occurs lower in elevation, and more deeply in frequent thick fog; Knobcone pine is found higher and hotter and dryer. In between, there are pines that look like both, and the globally planted forestry tree looks like one of those tweeners. As the birthplace of this confusing but useful forestry tree, The Chalks has its tree ambassador planted by the millions, all over the world. And yet, this tree isn’t the only famous bit of Chalks botany…there are also some world-famous manzanita species.

The Manzanitas

Chalks Chaparral includes 7 species of manzanitas, and there are two common, more widespread ones that dominate and two very rare species that only occur in this habitat. The most common species is brittle leaved manzanita, a widespread burl-forming species, and the subject of a previous essay. The other common species is the sensitive manzanita. Sensitive manzanita has small roundish shiny dark green leaves, making it look like the boxwood of the chaparral. Mixed in with these two species, there are two other manzanita species- two which exist nowhere else in the world: Ohlone manzanita and Schreiber’s manzanita. Each of these locally endemic manzanitas are very uncommon even in The Chalks and grow entirely on private property, so you can’t visit them outside of the UCSC Arboretum’s Conservation Garden. There might be as few as 100 Ohlone manzanita plants in the entire world!

You can, however, view photos of Shreiber’s manzanita from a 1939 expedition that led to its discovery. One photo archived by UC Berkeley shows a big manzanita surrounded by knobcone pines and chamise. Another photo has an overview of the habitat showing the large amount of bare ground with sparse manzanitas, pines and few oaks; that 1935 photo suggests a fire as recent as 14 years previously. The next fire was to be 8 years later in 1948.

You might be wondering about the other three manzanitas you can find on The Chalks. They are: Santa Cruz manzanita, silver leaf manzanita, and the crinite manzanita. On a rare California Native Plant Society field trip through the Lockheed property in the 1990s, we saw all 7 species within a short walk of one of our stops.

The Trails and Views

The best places to access The Chalks are in Big Basin State Park, now closed because of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire…but, put those trails on your list when it reopens. Whether from the coast or from inland, your destination are the ridges around Chalk Mountain. The trails wind on ridgelines with gorgeous views of the ocean overlooking Año Nuevo Island and a vast expanse of the ocean. On a clear day, you can see Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands to the north and Point Sur to the South.

Another place to aim for is Eagle Rock out of Little Basin. Eagle Rock is an isolated bit of sandstone on the eastern flank of The Chalks. The views from Eagle Rock expand eastward more than you might see from Chalk Mountain. The trail goes through a kind of chaparral closely allied to The Chalks, but with less rock showing than elsewhere.

Fires and Seeds

Both the 2009 and 2020 wildfires spread initially through The Chalks chaparral, same as the 1948 Pine Mountain fire. Those watching the 2009 fire said they saw what looked like fire tornados launching from one ridge and igniting the next ridge down wind. No one was watching for the more recent fire, which spread even more quickly. Both fires triggered fire-following seeds to germinate.

The most widespread and obvious fire following seedlings are bush poppies. Most of The Chalks will still be barren next summer (as before the fire), but patches of chest high blue-green bush poppy shrubs will be flowering with their bright yellow flowers next summer. I have tried everything to germinate those bush poppy seeds, including the recommended soak in white gasoline, presumably to break down its seed coat. But, after the fire…seedlings pop up all over.

The Chalks and the Rare Human Animal

Humans are rare in The Chalks. The Lockheed facility had, at its peak, hundreds of employees visiting this chaparral regularly, for work. But then much of it burned, and it is unclear if they will continue to operate the facility in the future. The Lehi property is also mostly ephemerally visited by people. The most common place to find humans in The Chalks had been out Last Chance Road where a culture all its own had homes sprinkled around patches of beautiful chaparral. That community, also, burned in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Much of what we know about the natural history of places is gleaned by humans who make habits of visiting those places and looking carefully at what’s around them. Historically, few people have wandered into The Chalks with an eye to natural history. Shreiber’s 1930’s era Chalks visit mentioned above highlighted the area to natural history enthusiasts with the discovery of a new manzanita species (and those intriguing photographs!). Then there’s Jim West, a botanist extraordinaire endemic to the Swanton area, who has brought The Chalks to the attention of many other naturalists, in part because of his discovery of the other new manzanita species. His work has led to a kind of Chalks revival with a new focus on vegetation mapping bringing a host of new naturalists’ attention to that area. There is much more to be discovered in The Chalks – who will be the next person to find something amazing up there? Post fire recovery may have many surprises…

Brittle-leaved manzanita chaparral

– This is another of my posts from Bruce Bratton’s (highly recommended!) weekly at brattononline.com

The rains bring alive chaparral, so this is the beginning of a series featuring local types of “hard chaparral.” The term chaparral is confusing, so I use the term ‘hard chaparral’ to denote chaparral dominated by manzanitas, chamise, and ceanothus. Hard chaparral is so thick and dense and strong as to tear the clothes off of you if you are strong enough to try to walk through it. Rarely, you might crawl beneath the hard chaparral canopy. Nothing grows in the understory – there is only a light dusting of leaves – but you must squinch low while crawling…to 1 ½ feet… and wiggle down on the ground in tight spots; wearing a hat helps so that your hair doesn’t get caught and pulled out by manzanita’s stiff twigs.

Hard chaparral is different than ‘soft chaparral’ – also known as coastal scrub – which is dominated at first by coyote bush, then, later in life, poison oak, monkeyflower, and sagebrush. Soft chaparral generally grows on richer soils, closer to the coast. Hard chaparral grows on the poorest of soils, often with no discernable soil at all. Ridgelines and steep slopes mostly away from the immediate coast are home to hard chaparral.

In hard chaparral, along with the manzanitas you will find many other shrubs and an overstory of pines. Sometimes sparse, sometimes dense, knobcone pines are the more common pine, but there’s a Monterey pines overstory near Año Nuevo. Oaks and Douglas firs slowly invade brittle-leaved manzanita chaparral until you eventually get a few forlorn dying shrubs or even just old barely recognizable skeletons that tell you the chaparral is gone, for now (awaiting fire!).

Brittle-leaved Manzanita Chaparral

Brittle-leaved manzanita is the dominant species of most of Santa Cruz’ hard chaparral. Smooth maroon skin with sinewy muscle-like ripples down thick, strong stems – that’s what most people remember about brittle leaved manzanitas, but the flowers and burls also give them away.

If they aren’t already in bloom, they will be soon. They have clusters of pure white to pink jewel flowers – upside down urns with windows to capture and magnify light, so the flowers glow on even foggy-cloudy days. Bopping from one cluster of flowers to the next…hundreds of bumble bees delight in the winter nectar feast. Hummingbirds, too, zip around sipping from the flowers. On warm days in December and January, brittle leaved chaparral smells strongly of honey, a scent which enchantingly wafts far afield, down into the woody canyons below.

Burly Shrubbies

Of the nine taxa of manzanitas found in Santa Cruz County, brittle leaved manzanita (Arctostaphylos crustacea subspecies crustacea) is the most common and one of only two that have ‘basal burls’ or lignotubers. The other burly manzanita is a different subspecies of the same species (Arctostaphylos crustacea subspecies crinita), that is mostly found at the top of Ben Lomond Mountain, from the Bonny Doon Airport north to Lockheed. To see burls on these manzanitas, look at the base of the stems for a swelling, sometimes quite large, of lumpy wood. These are very easy to see after a fire, because that’s where these manzanitas sprout new shoots. That’s their magic: the ability to get hotly scorched, fire removing all of the branches, and still live. Up pop the shoots as soon as the rains come…and three years later, there’s a Big Shrub once again where the last one stood.

Locations and Co-Occurring Treats

The tops of our parks are great places to visit this type of chaparral. The top of Wilder Ranch State Park, in what used to be known as Gray Whale Ranch, and into upper UCSC, has patches of brittle leaved manzanita chaparral. The top of Nisene Marks State Park also has stands of this chaparral type. Other places include Mount Madonna County Park, as well as Big Basin and Castle Rock State Parks. From the edges of trails, a wintertime treat will also be Indian warrior, a bright maroon perennial wildflower which forms large mats. Shooting stars and various rein orchids also sprout trailside in clear patches of this type of chaparral.

Another thing about wintertime chaparral visits that is intriguing are the lichens, mosses, and liverworts that color and texture the chaparral. Liverworts, in this dry habitat?? Yes! Get off your bike and kneel at that bare-soiled edge adjacent to the chaparral…look carefully…and you’ll see liverworts (and hornworts!) hugging the ground in between mosses and ground-hugging lichens. The intrepid will get to see more and more species by counting the number of different types of tiny things in those patches, which are kept bare by the golden crowned sparrows who retreated when you came their way.

Critters

Sure, chaparral is for the birds, and that’s not a bad thing. And yet, it’s not just for birds. Wrentits are the quintessential shrub habitat bird, and I also like watching the large-curved billed California thrasher. Wrentits bop around below the canopy, mostly, but pop up out on a branch to make their subtle descending ping-pong ball bouncing song. California thrashers, also understory creepers, sometimes jet out onto a high point in a chaparral patch and sing their hearts out with operatic glory.

The San Francisco Dusky Footed Woodrat makes homes on the outer periphery of brittle leaved chaparral patches. It seems this packrat likes oaks and coffee berry more than manzanitas, but manzanitas keep coyote at bay, so having that habitat at their backs is a preferred location. Ratttlesnakes like wood rats…and the summer heat of chaparral…so, that’s a good snake species to associate with hard chaparral. Rats and rattlesnakes….?

What Good Is It?

Brittle-leaved chaparral is good for lots, but unfortunately it is getting destroyed very quickly nowadays. Nutrient poor soils lost their nutrients because they are well drained. Well drained soils are important for recharging the groundwater, keeping our streams flowing and drenching our thirst. Because this hard chaparral can thrive in nutrient poor soils, it is responsible for keeping those slopes from washing into the creeks and for keeping our groundwater infiltration areas infiltrating. Those sprouting burls…they send roots out on steep slopes after fire, preventing landslides and debris flows from destroying homes and roads.

Mowing It Down

Despite ostensibly being protected, brittle leaved manzanita chaparral is getting hacked up at an alarming rate. Now that fire has our attention, bulldozers are hard at work ripping up manzanita burls to make ‘fire safe’ areas. Crushers, masticators, and saws whittle away manzanitas as if they were enemies. When asked, County Planners have said that they have policies to protect this habitat type- they don’t allow development activities within it. The California Coastal Commission also ostensibly protects this type of ‘maritime chaparral’ as an endangered ecosystem, disallowing any destruction. And yet, even from Highway 1, you can see vast patches of chaparral being destroyed on the ridges above Watsonville. Parks organizations are mowing it down even on conservation lands to be doing ‘their part’ with fire safety. From Southern California, we have learned that treating chaparral this way isn’t a solution to wildfire: it generally grows up patches of weeds, which are even more flammable, less able to hold slopes in place, and no replacement for the habitat value of hard chaparral.

What I hope for is more people showing others how to live safely, and sustainably, alongside manzanita chaparral that is well cared for. If you know of any places, please let me know.