Red Buttes Wilderness | Recognizing Wild
Wet weather, heavy snow at the passes, and swift creek crossing typified the first week of hiking through the Trinity Alps, Russian Wilderness, and Marble Mountains. Bottom left is the crossing of Stuarts Fork in the Alps—without that log, the trip would not have happened.
Luck was on our side. Eventually, the search for a crossing led us to a freshly downed Douglas-fir across the width of the raging creek. My brave hiking partner Jeffrey Kane tested the bridge without his pack and determined it was a go. As he walked across I followed with a crawl but regardless of form we were on the other side and the adventure could continue. High creek crossings and winter snow at the passes continued as we slowly walked sections 8-13 without further incident. After a week of summer weather with winter conditions we met our friend Radek at Seiad Valley and entered the Red Buttes Wilderness.
Into the Red Buttes Wilderness
Mount Shasta looms as Jeffrey Kane parts blooms of bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) along the Boundary Trail in the Red Buttes Wilderness.
We had been seeing wildflowers and other signs of spring along the route to this point but the climb on the PCT along Devil's Backbone into the high country of the Buttes offered the epic blooms and snow-free walking we had been dreaming about—summer was finally here! What follows is a photo-blog of some of the interesting observations we made in the Red Buttes—some inspired by the beauty of life others by the vectors of death. The forests of the dynamic Klamath Mountain region hold unparalleled beauty but are showing signs of a sickness facilitated by rapid climatic change. I am watching but can I help?
The Bigfoot Trail might appropriately be renamed The Cliff Maid (Lewisia cotyledon) Trail—they were on seemingly every rocky outcrop over the 150 miles we walked.
Serpentine walking with big views were the norm through the Buttes.
Alaska yellow-cedar | Cupressus nootkatensisThis tree is quickly becoming one of my favorite conifers in the region. Regionally, it is not very well understood nor easy to identify and can thus be easily confused with Port Orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) and/or Siskiyou cypress (Cupressus bakeri). Because of its rarity the species has regularly been misidentified or overlooked. According to my data, there are now 9 distinct regional populations in California (see map below). It is most common around Preston Peak. Of those 9 populations I have personally documented 3—this is a 50% increase since 2006 when I first found a new population. Surely there are more out there. I also included a map below where more populations might be found in the Red Buttes. I also believe there are more to be found in the Siskiyou Wilderness.
As we peered over the cliff face into the drainage below the yellow, weepy foliage caught my eye. I climbed down to find a small relict population of Alaska yellow-cedar thriving on the edge of serpentine in a cold and wet (for most of the year) pocket. I estimate the population to be less than 50 trees. This was a cone masting year and all trees that I saw appeared healthy. I hope to continue to monitor this population as it is an outlier in habitat from other Klamath populations—regionally this species is (and have been for millennia) harbingers for climate change.
Alaska yellow-cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis).
Kangaroo population in RED—undocumented until 7/2011
Jeff and Radek look north into the Applegate River headwaters. Just below their feet is where I spotted the undocumented population of Alaska yellow-cedar.
Blue dots show discovered populations—the red region is where I would like to look for more.
western white pine | Pinus monticolaOn specific sites across the western Klamath this species is dying fast. I have watched individuals become skeletons from one summer to the next. It is a complex and depressing issue. What follows is a discussion of the variety of factors that are leading to the decline of western white pine—particularly on serpentine substrates. Serpentine is already a fringe habitat for many species—but a habitat on which P. monticola has historically thrived. As climate warms and water disappears earlier in the season, more stress is placed on individuals allowing more and more factors to affect health. Western white pines are harbingers for forest health in these serpentine regions.
Skeletons of western white pine in the Lonesome Lake Basin in the Red Buttes. Virtually all dead trees are western white pine and I estimate mortality in the basin at 75%.
(LEFT) Witches brooming caused by western white pine dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium monticola) weakened the tree which allowed mountain pine beetles to ultimately kill it last summer. (RIGHT) Top die-back and brooming indicate this WWP is not long for this world.
Western white pine dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium monticola) is endemic to the Klamath Mountains and has co-evolved with P. monticola for millennia. However, as the climate warms, fringe habitat on serpentine (which is already a porous substrate) becomes difficult for specialists like the white pine to survive upon. Mistletoe infestations + pine beetles + white pine blister rust + warming climate = species decline (extinction?).
Characteristic gallery of the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). We pulled this bark from a recently deceased western white pine—weakened by mistletoe, killed by bark beetles.
Though less evident—at least this time of year—white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola) was making its presence known on several trees we saw on the journey. The 'cigarette scars' are caused by the fungus growing into the branches and causing swelling, the tree responds with resin. All this takes energy (sugars) which sends the tree into decline.
Jeffrey Kane to all he taught me about these forest pathology issues.
Fire regimeI'll touch on fire regime briefly and leave you to ponder your next hike.
Fire is shifting forest dynamics across the West—particularly in the southwest where sky island forests are in dramatic decline because of frequent high intensity burns caused by a warming climate. Because of the temperate nature of the Klamath Mountains, forests have a better chance at recovery after a high intensity burn—at least that is what my novice, optimistic mind would like to believe. One burn we walked through—while on the Devil's Backbone along the Pacific Crest Trail—was estimated by my Doctoral-Candidate-Fire-Expert-Friend to be about 25 years old. What we saw was high knobcone pine ( Pinus attenuata) regeneration on south-slopes. We also witnessed forest pockets on north-facing slopes unaffected by the quarter century old burn—essentially seed-banks for future forest regeneration.
A view westward along the crest of the Red Buttes through old fire scars.
What was most remarkable to me was the recruitment of Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana) into fringe habitat that burned 25 years ago. These relict trees are not fire adapted—having thin bark and rarely growing near other trees (shade intolerant) where it would likely be subjected to the spread of fire. Instead, the survival regime of the Brewer spruce includes growing along lonely, exposed ridgelines where other trees won't or can't. The Brewer spruce we saw on the Devils Backbone were not acting like most—their efforts for existence included growing in fire prone areas as well as having the propensity to pioneer burned habitat. This is the type of dynamic forest evolutionary individualism that has kept this species around for 60 million years. Hopefully DNA sculpted by deep time evolution will keep them around for many more years regardless of enhanced climatic change. I also hope they might share their survival regime story with struggling forest friends—like the western white pine—so that they too can adapt as our climate continues to shift.
Knobcone pine regeneration along the Devils' Backbone—the taller trees are Douglas-fir that did not burn in the fire.
Brewer spruce recruitment where fire swept through ~25 years ago. Notice that they are growing adjacent to the fire-adapted knobcone pines.
We will be back...