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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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Playing with Fire

Fire have always fascinated and followed me.  As a kid I played with matches, but who didn’t.  I grew up in Hollywood, not too far from the ‘Hollywood’ sign and next to lots of open space hills.  I had my fire escape route planned out by the time I was 4.  I’d lay awake at night thinking about the 2 or 3 things I’d grab when the big one came.  At 6 years old, the Big One did come.  My mother was out of town; my father and big sister were at the movies, and I was with the babysitter.  A large out of control fire was roaring up the hillside near the Observatory, just blocks from my house, at night.  The babysitter awakened me to tell me we had to evacuate. I watched that night fire so close to my house.  It was a beautiful sight.  Huge sparks fell on my house roof.  I didn’t want to leave.

During the summers it was routine to watch the brush fires being fought by the fire department from my house.  I even remember watching and eating cookies.  One summer when I was nine, at a camp on Catalina Island an hour from Avalon, a large fire broke out. Only myself and another girl were around.  We pulled the fire alarm, alerted the rest of the campers, and let the horses loose.

As I grew up and moved to Northern California, many times I was the first one at a house fire or wildfire and called the Fire Department.  I’ve never fought a fire, but fire seemed to always be part of my experience.  Given another lifetime, I think I’d go to the Fire Science School at U of Nevada.

So when my retired fire fighter friend woke up yesterday morning and said “Let’s burn the big brush pile”, I thought “YES”.   Its the brush pile I’ve written about before, the leftovers from the logging they did this winter.

Brush pile before we burned. Dog for reference of size.

There’s several of them scattered over many different properties.  I don’t have land on the forest, so I don’t have any of my own.  But my absentee neighbor had a huge one and it was blocking my perfect view.  I certainly didn’t want to look at that thing all summer, and I’ve been trying to help him figure out how he could get help, since he lives so far away, to burn it.

The weather’s been warm and the snow is gone.  But several nights ago we had a light dusting and it was a cold, high humidity day.  With the ground still frozen and the wind low, here was our chance.

I’ve been learning a lot from my friend G. about fire and burning.  We’ve burned a lot of brush piles together from my upper cabin area, piles of beetle killed and infested pines.  But this pile was humongous, at least 75′ x 30′ x 12′ high!  There were lots of big logs as well as brush in there.  It was dry and it was going to alight easily.

We started as the sun was going down.  With the cooler temperature and higher humidity, and less chance of wind, the evening is the best time for a burn like this.  G.  began by lighting the pile from 4 or 5 different sides and directions.  Pretty soon both ends came together and, here’s the video…

I put the dog at the end for reference.  By the way, I was filming from that far back because it was hot.  ‘Hotter than hell’ as they say.

Soon night came.  We were out there for hours.  I laid down and watched the sparks rise high against the night sky.  Fire whorls burst out in small areas, like white hot tornadoes, reminding me of a witches’ brew.

The fire as night fell quickly. The stars came out. See person on right side for scale.

I could see the fire from my bedroom window.  It’s not too far from my house.  Periodically during the night I’d awaken and look out the window.  Always it was burning, burning. That night I had the funniest dream:    While in the mountains, someone said “haven’t you read the news”.  I hadn’t.  “There’s been an economic meltdown and fires are burning all over the city.”  Meltdown, fire, economy…funny connections.

By morning it had burned down and we chunked the pile together with a loader.  It had been a fantastic night.

Fun's over.

Elk in the Valley

This is the week the collared elk get their ‘check-ups’–sonogram, blood, and other indicators.  In order to do that, these elk need to be located and darted from a helicopter.  Then the biologists are lowered down, do their thing within just a few minutes, and are whisked away again to their next elk, while the elk is waking up.  This is the last year of a five year study to find out why the elks’ pregnancy rates are so low in my valley.

Helicopter getting ready

I’ve been watching them on and off as they work the valley.  The copter pilots are amazing.  They’re Kiwis, the best mountain copter pilots around.  With no doors, they dress in super warm suits, land in odd and uneven terrain, and maneuver quite close to trees, cliffs and mountain tops.

Watching them work, I couldn’t help but remember when I went river rafting on the South Island of New Zealand.  The rafting adventure began at the head of a glacier and in order to get there we needed to ferry all our equipment, including ourselves, by helicopter up the canyon.  I boarded the copter, fully expecting to fly above the canyon and set down on the glacier.  But instead, the pilot took off inside the narrow canyon, running those curves like a race car with the raft waving around tied below us.  The copter seemed to swing freely side to side, hanging by the propeller above.  It was so scary that I decided to just accept whatever might come and enjoy the fantastic ride.

Copter in my valley

One of the students explained that the biologists on board are from Oregon and pioneered these elk allocation studies.  Most of these elk are not residents.  In other words, they don’t live here year round.  Instead, they come in around January from the Park, snow pushing them towards warmer terrain.  Sometime around late April or May, they begin to make their way back into Yellowstone to have their calves.  From what the student heading the study tells me, 6 out of every 10 calves succumb to predators, mostly grizzlies coming out of hibernation with an appetite and the calves are easy prey in their first 10 days. 

But this study is looking at low pregnancy rates amongst this group.

I spent some time talking with one of the Game & Fish biologists about what’s being called sudden Aspen death in Colorado.  Reminds me of Sudden Oak Death (SOD) in California which I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about.   My own theory with SOD has to do with lack of fires.  Fires have been cleansing the soils in California (and the West) for thousands of years, clearing out fungus as well as competing undergrowth.

This biologist had worked in south WY and felt that the Aspens, bereft of fires, are in the process of a natural rejuvenative cycle so young clones can arise.  He told me a story about early settlers being angry at Native Americans in the Sierra Madres for setting fire to aged forests.  Those Indians gardened the landscape with fire as their tool, aiding the regenerative process in Aspens.  With a fire suppression policy blanketing the West for over 100 years, forest health has declined as well as quality of feed for our native ungulates.

Radiant Heat

Its time for another post about beetles, clearcuts, burns, and all that goes with that.

Beetles are demolishing the conifers of our western forests.  Rising temperatures, years of  fire suppression policies, and natural cycles contribute to these changes in our forests.  Its also worth saying that conifers have been around for eons of time, way before insects and angiosperms were on this planet.  At one time you can imagine the whole world covered with conifers.  Their successful strategy of being wind pollinated has allowed them to disperse and survive.

So what’s the fuss?

In the end its all about saving structures.  Man-made structures like our homes.  And money of course.  I don’t disagree with that in essence.  But I do think there is a way to work with nature, taking as much into account as is humanly possible.

Because there is money from the state only this year, rather than over 5 years time, my neighbors had incentive to almost clear cut the forest on their properties, for essentially free.  But the caveat was that the loggers got the dollars and useable wood, leaving the slash piles for the homeowners to take care of.  Thus, there are humongous piles all over the woods now, if you could call what’s left ‘woods’. And the homeowners are trying to figure out what to do with these piles.

Wow, what a gigantic slash pile in front of my house in my neighbor's yard

I too was given the same incentive, but chose not to use a logging company and am looking towards doing my project in a lighter way.  Of course, I don’t have the intense forest of spruce and dead fall they had.  What I have is a more sparse population of Limber Pines, suffering from Blister Rust and some beetle kill.

Last year on my own I began limbing up trees starting with those around my upper cabin, with the intention of over the course of 5 years, completely limbing up all the pines.  Limbing them up to 5-6′ might help the pines fend off the rust.  My logic is for two reasons:  first they avoid contact with the Ribes that likes to grow under and next to the pines. Ribes is a host for the rust.  Second, since the rust is a type of fungus, air circulation can never hurt in helping fight fungus.

When the state forester saw I’d started limbing around the cabin, he and the fire chief were happy.  Its a good step in fire prevention as well.

This year I’m selectively cutting and burning those pines that have active beetles, heavily.  Its been easy to identify.  The trees have pitch tubes where they are trying to pitch out the beetles.  The ones that have a plethora of pitch tubes probably won’t make it.  We’re cutting those and burning them on the spot.

Burn on my property

I also have trees from last year that succumbed to beetles.  I’m cutting those selectively, burning the debris and using the rest as firewood.  The beetles have already flown from those trees.

Then I’ll continue to limb up all the trees and burn the slash.  Finally, we’ll do a night burn where we’ll fix a perimeter and burn a low fuel ground fire to clean up the soil, making it fresh for new nutritious native grasses and the young seedlings I plan to plant to replace those that died.

I’ve noticed there are few young trees amidst the old.  I’ve read that in the White Pine family, as the Clarks Nutcracker distributes the seeds, the most successful germination rates are on new burn areas.  Maybe that is why there are so few seedlings here, as there hasn’t been a burn in probably over 100 years.

I didn’t own any of that spruce forest that I loved to walk in daily.

Devastated spruce forest after intensive beetle logging

Filled with owls, moose, turkeys, deer, black bears, coyotes, martens, squirrels and endless other creatures, I’d see their sign, hear their sounds, and know they found cover and food there.  Now the forest looks like a vast hurricane-like force came whipping through it.  And although nature herself can deal some devastating blows, it didn’t have to go down this way.  I would have made it a 5 year plan, slowly clearing with intention so that areas could grow in with willows and choke cherries, alders and native grasses, keeping cover as I cleared successively.

The forest now. There will be lots of blow down still to come

So what’s the fuss?  Sure, it will grow back in time, although not in my time here.  We humans are like a hurricane.  It takes discipline and conscious effort to go forth gently.  As the old adage goes:  Destroying is easy.  Any one can do that.  Yet creating and sustaining takes work, nurturing and love.  And that is what makes us truly human.

Right as Rain

Its Valentines’ Day and I’m finally home.

The day was clear and beautiful.  I awoke to a small bit of fresh snow and a beautiful fiery sunrise.

Sunrise over Dead Indian

Last night I watched the elk that overwinter in my valley.  I heard the recent G&F count was 1460.  They come down from the Park when the weather pushes them out.  This year, as last year, they were a bit on the ‘late’ side.  At dusk and dawn they come out of the tree cover to feed.  Here’s a herd of about 700.

Just a small part of the large elk herd behind my house
More elk
Beautiful elk in their winter clothing

The herd is almost exclusively cows and their calves with a few young males, called ‘spikes’ because their antlers are barely branched, if at all.

The whole day the wolves were howling in the valley.  Its mating season and I suppose its also Valentines Day for them too.

We felled some beetle infested trees on my property and did a burn that lasted till after dusk.  The wolves  howled.  The air was still and clear.  The ash fell like snowflakes.  Elk grazed on the flats up above and a lone Great Horned Owl called in the low light of the sky.  I’m back and everything is right as rain.

Brush fire

Natives and Noxiousness

I’ve been lax in writing, between the holidays and just returning from New York City.  Now I’m focused on getting back home to Wyoming, but first I have to install three jobs and the weather here isn’t cooperating.  I’m itching to get home, but storm after storm is dumping on Northern California, and the ground’s too wet to plant.

I have been shocked at the pervasiveness of invasive broom species in the hills of Marin County where I’m staying.

Broom edging a meadow

Marin County is unique in ratio of open space.  Since it gets 75% of its water directly from rainfall within the county, the watershed is protected, and Mt. Tamalpais contains 100’s of hiking trails.

Marin County. Gateway to lots of hiking, Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods.

I’m staying in an area not far from the main reservoirs.  Koda and I take walks there daily, and in huge tracts of the hills, french broom has completely taken over.  In fact, I can safely say that the broom has become an understory monoculture, crowding out smaller delicates like our Coast Iris, Phacelias, Monkey Flowers, wildflowers, and ferns.

It would take a county work day of the entire population to clear the hills

I’ve hiked and encountered signage saying ‘This is a test area’ to see what works better on the broom–propane torching or vinegar applications.  In the past, volunteer work crews have gone out and using a special tool, pulled up the broom.  We’ve been doing this for years and years in Marin.  But the situation seems out of control to me now.  Marin would have to have a work crew of every man, woman, and child living here for a full weekend and that might not even do the job.

Like the problems with Sudden Oak Death, I have to wonder if our fire suppression policies over the last many years have exacerbated these problems with invasives.  Burning with reburns two to four years later for the sprouts have met with some success.  But given the density of housing in the hillsides, the long term drought, and the dangers of ‘controlled burns’ getting out of hand, fire control probably won’t happen.  And that is too bad, because, once again I’ll say it, the West is adapted to fire.

As a testimony to the wonderful adaptations of California plants to fire, look at this Madrone.  One way to simulate fire in native plants i.e. rejuvenate them if they are in your yard, is too cut them back severely.  Here is a Madrone tree that was cut to a stump by the CCC during their clearing of this hillside Madrone forest.

Arbutus, Madrone, resprouts after being cut to ground

You can do this with lots of natives.  For example, one way to rejuvenate woody Baccharis pilularis is to cut it very severely, thereby simulating a fire.  Native grasses enjoy this method as well.

I still feel that loss of natural, frequent, low fuel fires has compromised our landscapes.  Pathogens build up in the soil; invasives take hold more easily; soil depletion occurs due to lack of nitrogen fixing plant material which is first to regenerate after a fire; understory growth has built up providing massive amounts of fuel for hotter, more deadly fires.  Just compare the first photo of the monoculture of broom with the cleared Madrone forest photo.  I can’t be sure but I am guessing that forest was manually cleared because it sits on a ridgeline dividing the watershed open space and a residential section in the canyon below.  It probably serves as a firebreak.

Of course, all the open space can’t be hand cleared.  With the massive build up of fuel in the form of invasive broom, as well as other types of chaparrel that hasn’t burned in years, Californians are preparing for some big fires ahead.

Beetle infested forest–How I would have approached it

View of the forest next to my home last winter

Here is the little forest next to my property last winter

This small forest is almost exclusively spruce.  Springs from higher up feed the area, making it swampy in many places.   The springs are on public land; the forest you see in the photo is on the private lands of several homeowners.  It is a small island of conifers surrounded on both sides by meadow.  The springs run through and feed into Elk Creek, a wetland drainage with willows harboring moose most of the year.

I walked the forest everyday last year.  Many of the spruce were either downed, standing dead, infested or going to be infested.  It wasn’t easy to walk through the forest with so much deadfall.  Yet these spruce were old growth, up to 200 years or more.  The forest harbored at least three kinds of owls, moose, bear, deer, coyotes, turkeys, and lots of birds.  Wolves traveled through on occasion.  Hawks fed on smaller birds and squirrels.  I’d seen weasel tracks.  The forest was alive all the time, and changing.

The State of Wyoming acquired some funds to clear beetle infested areas around structures as part of their fire prevention program.  Homeowners were offered so many dollars to clear around their structures up to several acres.  The homeowners who owned these woods pooled the dollars offered by the State, and with the State Forester’s help, hired a local logging contractor to clear the woods.  It was recommended that all deadfall, standing dead, infested, and larger trees (even if not infested on the premise that they’d soon be infested) be removed.  Aspens were to remain.  Young spruce would remain.  The money was there, now, this year only, so the homeowners decided to do the complete logging job in one fell swoop.   Here is what it looks like today, from the same viewpoint.Same forest this winter after cutting

In the photo below, the area thick with trees on the right is National Forest property.  The left side is the private lands.  One thing to note is that on the National Forest side, although there are some spruce, its steeper (not visible in photo), therefore drier, and has predominately Douglas firs, not yet infested.Public Forest not logged is on the right.  Logged on left are private lands

Closer up

You can see the fence divide between National forest & Private cuts

OK, personally, here is how I would have done it.  First, I’d assume a seven year plan.  I’d use the money available the first year and do the logging by hand, therefore preventing all the compaction and destruction caused by the large machinery.

Around any structures I would have cleared all infested and dead trees, leaving a fire break near the structure.

Next I would have selected ‘red trees’, that is, dead standing trees with their needles still attached.  These trees can be torches and should be removed.

Then I would clear the forest floor by doing burns in place where possible.  The giant brush piles in the photo above will burn so hot that it will take a lot of time for the grass to return.

That would be my priority for the first year.  I would put the forest on a seven to ten year plan of slowly clearing, opening up areas selectively for the regeneration of Aspen and Willows.  The forest certainly needed attention as there probably hasn’t been fires here in over 100 years.  By slowly clearing, animal homes and cover would be saved and new habitat created naturally.   Many animals used this forest as a corridor to travel yet stay hidden, especially moose.  The moose used the shade in hot afternoons after browsing on the willows in the marsh areas below.

In addition, now I can see my neighbors.  This could have been prevented.  Being that none of this forest is on my property, I really had no clout, only an opinion that I voiced.  But the fear of rampant fire seemed to cloud and dominant, as well as the available funding and the recommendations of the State agencies funding the project.

It will take years to regenerate even a little bit of cover.  Eventually, though not in my lifetime, Aspens will take over this area and that is a good thing.  The Willows will come first, but even before that I predict a giant infestation of Canadian thistle that will need to be hand controlled.  By clearing slowly, methodically, with sensitivity, the forest could regenerate at a more natural pace.

Tonight I caught a program on NPR about deforestation in Indonesia.  The Indonesian government has been giving private logging firms the right to log ancient community forests.  The local indigenous peoples are starving without their food source–the forest and its inhabitants.  I listened to a government agent say “This forest is declining and should be cut”.  Then I heard an indigenous leader say “This forest contains small streams that give us water, animals like tigers, orangutans and birds, and other animals we hunt for food, and plants we need for medicine.”  I ask you:  Whom of these two parties knows more about forest management?

Pine Beetles, Spruce Beetles, and what to do?

The County Fire Warden and the State Forester paid a visit to my neighbors last week.  There’s some money in the till to help homeowners clear dead and dying trees from their properties.  Since my area is full of beetle kill, and getting worse exponentially every year, we’re sitting ducks for a big forest fire.  The fires are going to happen, and need to happen for a variety of reasons, and the number one issue of fire fighters is saving structures (and lives of course).  If we can help out beforehand, all the better.

My neighbors and I have been talking about the little forest that surrounds us for several years.  Its mainly Spruce (Picea engelmannii)–old Spruce–and they are being hit hard by the beetles.   In fact, one of my friends counted the rings on a downed large tree–185!  That’s almost 200 years old, the average life span of a Spruce.

The Douglas Firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) interspersed amongst them seem to be healthy for now, and all around the outskirts where there is light, as well as the areas where the spruce have fallen, Aspens are coming up.  The small forest is half private lands and half National Forest.  Its sits below a shelf of limestone where the springs run–our drinking water.  So the area is wet, and sometimes swampy.  The Spruce like this.  Upslope above the springs, it’s mainly Douglas firs.  Higher than that, there is less ground water and the forest turns into a mix of Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) and Doug Fir.

I don’t own land in the Spruce forest so I was not a part of the walk-through, but I was told that the way the money from the State will flow is more reimbursement for the first acre around structures, and then the reimbursement percentage diminishes the further out you go from buildings.  The recommendation was to have one logging company do the whole job.  It wouldn’t be clear-cut.  They’d be taking out dead standing trees as well as clearing (probably burning) ground fuels.  The spruce are in such bad shape that there’s no money in it for useable timber.  Its good for firewood and/or log cabins.

My friend who was a forester for over 30 years cleared up some misnomers for me.  I asked him if it was true that standing dead trees were no more a fire hazard than standing live trees.

“True”, he said, “but trees with dead needles are like a torch.  Dead needleless trees are equally a fire hazard as live green ones.  What’s the real hazard is all the ground fuel.  Crown fires can’t usually continue very far unless they have fuel below to ladder them up.”

I made a point to mention to the State Forester that our small forest is home to moose, three species of owls, deer, turkeys, bears, and various obvious small birds and mammals.  Sensitive logging is imperative.

When they had finished with the Spruce forest, they showed up on my property and we walked to my upper area which is Limber Pine exclusively.  When I first got the property several years ago, there were no dead trees.  Last year I noticed I had blister rust, which I’m sure they’ve had for years.  But this winter I had several trees suddenly die on me from pine beetle.  I was anxious for the State Forester to see my trees, their health, and show me how to identify beetles and explain in detail their life cycle.

Apparently, the pine beetle has a one year life cycle as opposed to the spruce beetle which has a two year cycle.  The beetles fly sometime in the late spring, find a tree or trees (they look for larger ones), lay their eggs, and the larvae overwinter and feed on the tree.  The beetles make tunnels, called galleries, laying their eggs as they go along (and eating the tree as well).  The Forester found a cluster of infested trees on my property in one area.

Last years kill

Last years kill

He took an axe and cut into the bark, exposing the tissue of the tree beneath and showed us the galleries along with a beetle (quite small).

This tree is a goner

This tree is a goner

The identifying feature on my Pine trees is the frass(tissue or wood of the tree) at the base of the tree as well as the holes with pitch and frass where the beetles have bored and the tree is trying to ‘pitch’ them out.

Frass at base of tree

Frass at base of tree

If the infestation isn’t too bad, if the tree isn’t stressed by other factors such as drought or disease, then a tree can usually fend off the beetles by producing a lot of sap or pitch in the wound, just like your body might get rid of a splinter.  But between the extended drought years and the blister rust, many of my trees are succumbing.

Tree trying to pitch out beetle

Tree trying to pitch out beetle

What can I do?  Not much.  The pines that are dead no longer have beetles in them.  I can use them for firewood or leave them standing dead (better to take most of them down to reduce the fire hazard, although Limber Pines usually don’t present much of a fire hazard as they burn out).  The ones that have infestations this year I should cut down this winter and burn them onsite.  Burning will kill the larvae, insuring those beetles won’t fly next spring.  And the old specimen trees I want to save I could put pheromones on (He says that’s iffy at best) or spray with Sevin (toxic chemical) which works well.

In addition, I’ve noticed that there are very few young trees on my property, or on the Forest Service property next to mine.  This is probably due to a combination of drought, poor seed production, and blister rust, which has hit the young trees hard.  I suggested, and they agreed, that I begin a planting project of seedlings.  There’s no money for replanting in Wyoming.  Montana or Idaho might give homeowners money for that, but Wyoming doesn’t (not a heavily forested state).  I’d be planting for the future.  Pinus flexilis takes about 40 or 50 years before it begins to cone and produce.

One thing I can do is pray for 2 weeks of cold weather.  20 degrees below zero for two consecutive weeks kills the larvae.  We haven’t had that for years, and with global warming (or climate change, whatever you want to call it), that kind of cold is getting harder and harder to come by.

For now, it looks like the trees have ‘the plague’.

This tree looks like it has smallpox!

This tree looks like it has smallpox!

Of course, these cycles are natural in nature.  The Spruce will disappear and be replaced by Aspen, as well as young spruce and doug fir.  The Limber and White Bark are more problematic–between non-native Blister rust and native pine beetles killing whole forests, these pines contain nuts that are the fall food for Grizzlies.  They need the fat for their winter hibernation.  Pine nuts are to the Grizzlies of the Rockies as Salmon is for Grizzlies of Alaska; and as the trees disappear, another food source will be needed.  With warmer winters come shorter hibernation periods.  I suspect that will mean more Grizzly/human interactions and that, of course, means bad news for the bears.  Bears never are the winners in conflicts with humans, at least in the long run.

Last summer I spotted a government vehicle next to a nearby Aspen grove.  I stopped and chatted with the plant pathologist working on a 5 year Federally funded Aspen study in the Western U.S.

“The Aspens in Colorado are dying, by the droves, and no one knows why,”  he told me.

I asked about our trees.

“They’re just dying of the usual pests and diseases.”

Things are changing all over the West, in so many unpredictable, unusual, and new ways.  Dogwoods, Magnolias, and Redwoods once grew in Yellowstone, millions of years ago.  Twenty two different species of Redwoods were native to the United States.  Now only two species grow in just a tiny portion of California.  We’re in for some big changes.