Sunday, August 31, 2008

Burning the Last Great Places

The Nature Conservancy has a slogan of 'saving the last great places', named for an intensive initiative of identifying and securing many of our intact ecosystems. The prairies and woodlands that are now protected from agricultural and development often have a long term relationship with wildfire that acts as a recurring disturbance that keeps the ecosystem from slowly changing into a different form. This need for fire to maintain an ecosystem is referred to as a 'fire regime'.

This past week, we performed our first burn of the season on a small section of Wolf Haven. It was a small burn, only about 2 or 3 acres, and we had over 20 people to manage it! Many of the folks at the burn, including myself, were first-timers on a prescribed burn, so this was was as important for training as it was a trial to see how the prairies at Wolf Haven respond to fire treatment. Our Burn Boss tasked the Nature Conservancy Crew with holding the western line, and the East Olympia and Thurston County firefighters managing the eastern line. My coworker managed the TNC pump truck, which provided one water source. My job was keeping fire from creeping across the burn lines into our fire break, which was a mowed area.

Ideally, fire breaks are best as bare soil, but since we want to restore the prairie, and not leave permanent scars on the land, we simply mow the fire breaks and keep them doused with water. The winds were from the south, so we began at the north end of the unit and started a test fire. After observing how the test fire behaved, the burn boss decided to continue the burn. A person on each end of the fire line would use a Drip Torch to ignite a line of grasses that "backburn" into the wind. The wind tries to push the fire across our fire break, but we use water and flappers to prevent it, which is referred to as a wet line.

Once the fire has crept far away from our line, the two igniters move the fire towards the center, where the wind rapidly sweeps it across the unit and creates what is called a Head Fire, hopefully creating the right conditions to accomplish the restoration goals. Once the head fire reaches the burned line, there is no fuel and it is contained, but if it ever crossed our blackline, the head fire would become a wildfire and could quickly become a problem. Another potential danger is wind throwing embers far over the blackline and creating a Spot Fire, which could become it's own fire and spawn yet more spot fires. In prescription burns, weather is monitored continually for bad conditions, and lookouts are posted to watch for spot fires.

We continued this method of parceling the burn unit into chunks like this until the entire area is completed. Three acres of grass burns very quickly, so it was only about 45 minutes before only the poor, smoldering ruins of Thatcher ant mounds were left. These ant mounds are quite large, sometimes build to heights of 4 feet! Many chambers are tunneled under the ground too, with stored seeds and other organics that will smolder a long time. We needed to ensure these were doused before calling the burn completed.

Thatcher ants are really fascinating insects: they don't really bite humans, and they perform many beneficial services for the ecosystem by collecting litter and controlling bad insects from damaging the plants and trees. Their mounds can extend up to 15 feet below the surface, and perhaps for this reason they were one of the first animals to recolonize Mount Saint Helens after the 1980 eruption.

After a busy week, Lisa and I spent most of the weekend camping out at Big Creek, which is near Cushman Lake. The southern entrance to Olympic National Park is at the north end of the lake, and is called Staircase because nearly all the trails leading from there go in only one direction... up! We saw ancient Western Red Cedar trees, century old manganese mines, waterfalls, and crystal clear water flowing down the Skokomish River. There wasn't much wildlife readily visible, except for a few squirrels and birds. Most of the birds were high up in the trees, and wouldn't come down to visit except for a Hairy Woodpecker and Stellar's Jays. We did see a pair of Osprey tending a nest high up over the river, so they seem to know where to find food - any maybe why we didn't see anything else.

I hope everyone else had an enjoyable holiday weekend too!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Midway at Midsummer

The time between summer's solstice and autumnal equinox is upon us; summer is half over and so is my season with Olympia's Nature Conservancy chapter. The weather seemed to signal that summer's days are numbered, since a prelude to fall arrived in the form of rainy and cool weather. We are now wrapping up our Reed Canary Grass cutting, and will transition to late summer work schedules. There are several prescribed burns planned for the upcoming weeks, and I may be called in to assist with them.

The blackberries, salmonberries, and thimbleberries are ripening on the prairies of Fort Lewis, and we've seen many signs that black bears have been feasting on them. We've also seen deer carcass, likely roadkill, that was dragged into tall grass and munched upon by either coyotes or bears. Along the oaks lining Johnson Marsh, we had an excellent view of a Red-breasted Sapsucker, another life-list bird!

Lisa and I decided to explore more of Mount Rainier National park, and we left early on Friday to secure a campsite... but the entire park was already full. Fortunately, Gifford-Pinchot National Forest borders the park, and we were able to nab a campsite at La Wis-Wis. This allowed serendipity to guide us to a wonderful cascade called Purcell Falls. Its icy cold waters air-conditioned the little canyon with cool, damp air that was welcome relief on a day with temperatures reaching record highs in the area. There was a pair of Winter Wrens chasing bugs in the moss covered rocks to feed their chicks hidden in a cliff-side nest.

At Mount Rainier, we first visited Grove of the Patriarchs, a small group of ancient Douglas-firs, western hemlocks, and western red cedars clustered along the flood plain of the Ohanapecosh River. There is a nice suspension footbridge across the river. The same clear, friendly waters under that bridge turned into a raging torrent a few miles further downstream at Silver Falls.

The following day, we explored many other sites, such as Martha Falls, Box Canyon, and Reflection Lakes. Martha Falls is actually a long series of tiers along Unicorn Creek, with a grand total of 650' of falls. We hiked down to one section that can be approached along the Wonderland Trail. Trees and logs from last winter's avalanche littered the canyon, and the ruins of two footbridges could be seen, one that was made from reinforced steel I-beams! The tier of the falls we could see from the trail tumbled over a columnar basalt palisade, and was the only trail at Mount Rainier we had to ourselves.

For the afternoon, we had a nice dayhike up Pinnacle Saddle. From the saddle, there are trails to The Castle and Plummer Peak, so I went up Plummer Peak. There were amazing views of Mount Rainier, with Mount Adams and even Mount Saint Helens could be seen on the hazy horizon. Along the same ridge as Plummers, Pinnacle Peak loomed nearby, with The Castle looking more like an ancient fortress and Unicorn Peak in the distance, whose snow banks become the headwaters of Unicorn Creek. There is a perfectly sloped snow bank on Plummer Peak that makes for an excellent glissade down a portion of the hike. Soggy buns are a cheap price to pay for a cool thrill like that in August!

We hit up a few other roadside attractions, such as Narada and Christine Falls, and walked along a huge bridge that crossed the valley carved by the Nisqually Glacier that has retreated several miles upslope. The headwaters of the Nisqually churned a muddy brown below our feet, and occasionally a booming sound of a rolling boulder would echo up to us. We might return again this fall to see the first snows and the brand new visitor center at Paradise. Maybe I should've bought an Annual Park's pass this year?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sedges have edges

Ok, it's been busy since my last post, but also boring, so nothing too exciting to report... just lots more dead Reed Canary Grass. I hope the salmon appreciate it! We plan to begin using the amphibious Argo in this photo to begin accessing more swampy areas soon, so we're firing up the engine and getting it ready for battle.

If you're new to botany, you might realize how difficult it is to identify grasses. One of the first lessons is a handy little ditty taught to me by a Nature Conservancy botanist some 10 years ago: "Sedges have edges, Rushes are round,
And grasses have nodes from top to the ground."

Sedges, rushes, and grasses are all members of the Class monocots, which means that seedlings have just one (mono) 'leaf' called a cotyledon. Flowering plants have seedlings with two leaves, so they're dicots. Sedges (Cyperaceae) have a triangular solid stem, so when you feel it between your fingers, there is an edge. Rushes (Juncaceae) often look similar to sedges, but their stem is round. Grasses (Poaceae) have hollow stems with nodes, or joints, that often have a leaf attached to the node.

But as with practically everything in botany, there are no absolute guidelines. Sedges won't always feel like they have an edge. Plants have an amazing variety, including carnivorous plants and ones that don't bother photosynthesizing... and lots of ways to trick the unwary observer. Plants also have incredible abilities to hybridize, such as polyploidy, which can drive botanists bonkers.

Meanwhile, it was a rainy weekend, so we holed up at home. We realized, living in Olympia, that we are therefore Olympians and should observe the opening ceremony and view some events. We also went to a nearby park for some great birdwatching and a fun puzzle geocache.

For the Safety First portion of this blog, I'd like to remind readers that it is now a primary offense in some states not to wear your seatbelt... so buckle up, or you'll be paying a steep fine ($125 to be exact!).

Friday, August 8, 2008

Alone in the Wilderness?

'Twas another exciting week of Reed Canary Grass carnage, interrupted briefly by skirmishes with Diffuse Knapweed and Tansy Rangwort. Some of the creek beds are very treacherous, with hidden holes several feet deep that make one trip while harnessed to a running brush-cutter. I fell into the same hole twice! Looking at my muddied boots, I now understand why they call it Muck Creek. Stink boot strikes again!

Astute readers may recall me discussing way back in February citing a Nature Conservancy study about the lack of connection to the average american to the natural world, with books such as "Last Child in the Woods" highlighting the increasing disconnect with nature and reality. Well, the good news is that from my recent summer experience, I'd say lots of folks are indeed enjoying the outdoors here in the northwest.

I recall reading some science fiction novels, such as "Earth", where embedded in the setting is the concept that there is so many people and too few natural areas that camping trips must be reserved far into the future and permits awarded by lottery. Well, the future is now: many hiking trips to very popular areas require permits to prevent the stampede of campers from destroying what they came to visit: the wilderness.

Nearly every major peak in the Cascade range requires a permit, with popular places such as the Enchanted Lakes and Monitor Ridge being booked up months in advance. Campsites at many National Parks fill up early; I recall breaking camp last summer at 6am to reach the Camp 4 ranger station to ensure we got a site (note: all sites are shared to max capacity here), and there was already a line of other campers ahead of us... on a tuesday! Campgrounds accessible by cars are even more popular, with anything in or near a National Park or coastline being 100% full all weekend long during the summer.

Time for another "Safety First message": I often sense a strange fear of nature from adults & children when they leave cars behind on a trail. The most popular fear that often exasperates me is, "are there poisonous snakes?". Deer and dogs kill far more people than mountain lions, bears, AND snakes. Let me reassure phobia suffers everywhere that the scariest thing in the wilderness is: weather, gravity, and kids with high powered rifles that think animals wear blue ponchos (and anyone else with a gun & poor judgement). That tragic accident happened within miles of where my friends and I camped this past weekend.

We spent Aug 2 and 3rd camping with friends at Horseshoe Cove at Baker Lake. It was cloudy on Saturday, so we spent the afternoon hiking along a trail along the north end of the lake. Unfortunately, some of the bridges were damaged or washed out from floods this spring. We had to turn around after a short while, but still had a nice walk along the river and streams. Sunday, we checked out the views from Anderson Butte and made the short hike down to Watson Lake at the edge of the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness. The skies were clear and sunny, and we had amazing views of Mount Shuskan, Mount Baker, and other rugged peaks in the North Cascades.