Subalpine Fir in the Red Buttes Wilderness

In 1969 Dale Thornburgh and John Sawyer discovered the first subalpine fir in California and also in the Klamath Mountains. This discovery was made in the vicinity of Russian Peak in what is now the Russian Wilderness. Since that time the species has been found in a total of eight locations in California's Klamath Mountains and twice in Oregon's Klamath. One of those Oregon locations is near Mt. Ashland and the other was recently discovered by Frank Callahan to the east in the Red Buttes Wilderness. This second location, in an isolated cirque on the north side of Tannen Peak was my destination—with Frank Callahan as my guide.


Looking east from Bolan Peak into the RedButtes Wilderness.

The trek to the trees was not easy but after several hours we reached the saddle above East Tannen Lake and peered down on the plants we were looking for. After dropping into the cirque and brush beating through alder we achieved the trees and I was in awe—how did they get here? There seemed to be only 8 individual plants, however this species has the tendency to root its lower branches and spread vegetatively across the landscape and it was difficult to distinguish if there were 8 plants or maybe more. These individuals were nested in the alder and in a small spring. With each other for support they were able to compete with the alder and eke out survival—albeit as outliers. Subalpine firs prefer meadows and lake-sides for the water offered inthis habitat. This place was neither a meadow or a lake and the trees were nearly 50 air miles from the next closest stand.

.Subalpine fir in the Red Buttes Wilderness
The restricted range of subalpine fir inthe Klamath Mountains.

This population is most likely not a relict because there are no large trees to be found nor no evidence other trees—dead or alive—survive outside of this small patch. The scenario I imagine for these trees being here is a recent dispersal by a bird. Maybe a Stellar's jay several hundred (thousand?) years ago consumed some subalpine fir seeds in the southern Cascades after which it decided it wanted to see the Pacific Ocean. On its flight west it perched on Tannen Peak for the view. Flying off again, it dropped some scat into this particular cirque basin. With water and the cold micro-climate of the the north-facing cirque the trees took a difficult purchase and today—while survival is a struggle—they do survive. Take a visit to the Red Buttes Wilderness yourself some day and ponder this and other outlier conifer distributions yourself—what's your scenario?


In the thicket of alder notice the bluish-green patch of subalpine fir—those are all the trees in this population! Here a spring wells up on the north face of Tannen Peak, and while nearly dominated by Sitka alder, several subalpine firs persist.


From inside the thicket, the fir is unmistakable. The spire-like crown crescendos against the sky where these tree clumps create diminuative conifer parapets.

More about subalpine fir from conifer country.

 

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