Owen Cheatham Redwood Grove

Or…Why Star Wars fans should love conifers–especially redwoods

Return of the Jedi had a major influence on my experiences as a youth. I wanted to be able to use the force like Luke Skywalker, as do many children again in 2016. The Star Wars phenomenon has trickled down to our 3 year-old son from his Kindergarten classmates at Montessori as well, so we decided to seize the day and go for a hike that combined the legend of the force with the power of the redwoods, and explore where science fiction meets natural history.

redwood needles and cones

Redwoods might just be the grandest species in the plant world—from top to bottom they are the epitome of grandeur. The tallest redwood is 379’ (and still growing), while one of the most massive redwoods is a mere 320’ but has a basal diameter of nearly twenty-six feet. Those are some impressive beings! The largest redwoods grow in northwest California, where they favor mountain slopes and river terraces close to the ocean while also being situated in the summer fog belt. Across the coastal landscape redwoods domineer a highly specific range—when soil, water, and exposure are optimal. The Owen Cheatham Redwood Grove is a great place to visit these giants.

In search of redwoods and film history in the Owen Cheatham grove.

In search of redwoods and film history in the Owen Cheatham Grove.

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San Gabriel Mountains – A Photo Tour

Celebrating the Bigcone Douglas-fir of the San Gabriel Mountains

After nearly a month of travel through one of the gems of Southern California, I’ve had enough time to reflect on all aspects of the journey–including the wonders of the wilderness and forest, as well as the state of the region. The San Gabriel Mountains remain wild, in large part, because of isolation due to slope. John Muir called them the steepest mountains he ever hiked in! It seems to me that the forests here are doing as well as they are, while our climate is rapidly changing, because of this isolation in slope. Forest pathogens travel much slower through heterogeneous landscapes with mixed stands of trees. Many of the Bigcone Douglas-fir stands we visited were in isolated on slopes of greater than 50º. Isolation sculpts the ecology of the mountain’s biota  in many ways, and makes life for Pseudostuga both easier and more difficult. That balance defines the ecological amplitude of many of the species on the California Floristic Province.

I’m still working on the full report for our findings, but in general it can be said that within region 1 of the map below, Bigcone Douglas-fir are not doing well. Elsewhere, they seem to be doing fine at the moment–especially if the species has been able to avoid high intensity fires. Reproduction is occurring at variable rates but they seem to like disturbed areas, like landslides, which the San Gabriels have no problem offering.
map-PSMA

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Record Bigcone Douglas-firs

Exploring the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

In my search to understand Bigcone Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) within the Angeles National Forest, I found myself in secret canyons and along steep hillsides that few people have ever explored. I thus took it upon myself to document more than just our selected data plots for Bigcone. In previous posts, I’ve shared some of the large angiosperms I’ve run across. Here is the documentation of the second largest Pseudotsuga macrocarpa yet measured — a record Bigcone Douglas-fir.

This Bigcone was found on the edge of a wash called Holcomb Canyon within the Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area. The tree is nearly as big around as the record specimen in Baldy Village but just not as tall. I have heard a rumor  that the Baldy tree lost some of its crown — so I wonder if the numbers I have for this tree are still correct. Regardless, the tree in the Punchbowl is much more dramatic, being that it is within the Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness and not in the middle of town!

Devils_PSMA

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San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

Bigcone Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument — Part two

The 346,177 acre San Gabriel Mountains National Monument was dedicated in October 2014 by a proclamation by President Obama after nearly 10 years of work to get it established.  It contains the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, the San Gabriel Wilderness, and Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness as well as most of the major peaks including Mount San AntonioMount Baden-Powell, and Throop Peak.

I’ve been contracted by the US Forest Service, in partnership with the California Native Plant Society, to map Bigcone Douglas-fir in the monument as well as write a technical report about our findings. We did initial reconnaissance last week and will return later this year to initiate the project’s data collection phase. What follows are images from our trip across the range to meet the species and the monument.

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Looking deep into the San Gabriel Wilderness.

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Bigcone Douglas-fir

Pseudotsuga macrocarpa

Because I will undoubtedly be making more posts about PSMA, as I embark further into a mapping and monitoring project in the San Gabriel Mountain National Monument, I thought a post that provides an overview of this amazing species would be in order.

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Bigcone Douglas-fir in the San Gabriel Mountains.

It has been called the desert fir (Jepson 1920), bigcone spruce (Munz 1959), false hemlock (Sargent 1884), and ultimately bigcone Douglas-fir (Abrams 1923). Clearly there was confusion as to this species relationship to other members of Pinaceae. It is now described as a Pseudotsuga, being ecologically distinct from its taxonomically complex western North American counterpart, Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). In addition to bigcone in Southern California, five other species of Pseudotsuga occur across Canada, USA, Mexico, Japan and China.

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San Dimas Experimental Forest

Bigcone Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) in the San Gabriel Mountain National Monument — Part one

I have always wanted to visit the San Dimas Experimental Forest and as part of a mapping and monitoring project for bigcone Douglas-fir, I finally had the opportunity. The “forest” descriptor in the area’s title is a bit misleading, as the majority of the vegetation is chaparral–but there are trees and it was our mission to find them (or at least what remains). Six major fires have been documented here since 1914, with the most recent occurring about 10 years ago. These fire events, along with climate change, are rapidly reshaping the remaining stands of trees. What follows is a photographic journey into the front range foothills of the eastern San Gabriel Mountains.

Cucamonga Wilderness from the San Dimas Experimental Forest.

Cucamonga Wilderness from the San Dimas Experimental Forest.

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Yolla Bolly Permutations

pərmyo͝oˈtāSH(ə)n

The action of changing the arrangement, especially the linear order, of a set of items (what came first, the conifer or the cone?)


Wandering Devil’s Hole Ridge, miles from anything human, the landscape shifts as quickly as the juncos dancing across the trail. Walkabouts bring a level of focus not found in civilization. Walking offers time to hypothesize about the world at a slower pace…How recently did the vegetation patterns I see come to be? When did the Ash-throated flycatcher arrive from its tropical winter-land? How did I find myself in this desolate, isolated place–seven years after I last visited–and so far from my family? Like the undulating contours on the ridgeline, I ponder my place in this dynamic world. Walking further I realize, while out of place, I am fortunate to be here with time to think.

Along the Bigfoot Trail in the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness

Along the Bigfoot Trail in the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness

Seeing the trees through the forests, the birds in those trees, and then this vast landscape through my astigmatized-wide-angle glasses; thoughts swirl through my mind. The first few hours allow time to come to terms with my isolation and my body’s age (I’m moving slower than when I was here in my 30’s). Slowly my mind settles into place, in the wilderness. I ponder plant migrations and vegetation patterns as a student of biogeography. A few miles later my mind drifts towards systems of order (and disorder) that are established out here. This is where true place-based interpretations begin to solidify: my understanding of wilderness and how I’ll never truly fit in among it. Then comes the delineation of rarity. I am a rare human here–among the trees, sky and soil–but this fanciful journey is for the rare plants of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel.

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Cone Peak Conifers

Los Padres National Forest – Ventana Wilderness

The Santa Lucia Mountains offer a magical landscape. Uplifted dramatically above the Pacific Ocean, sculpted by frequent fire return intervals throughout the Holocene, and decorated with interesting plants–the landscape tells stories reflected in deep time. Plants both evolutionarily new and old can be found across a variety of vegetation types. Steep north-facing mountainsides offer a rarity here: the absence of high-intensity fire. This happens because the steepness inhibits fuel loading in the understory. These cool microsites nurture two relict conifers–the Santa Lucia fir being one of the rarest firs in the world.

Cone Peak is in the Los Padres National Forest on the edge of the Ventana Wilderness

The Los Padres National Forest on the edge of the Ventana Wilderness.

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Creating the Bigfoot Trail Alliance

My high school biology teacher inspired my love for natural history. After hiking the Continental Divide Trail, I fell in love with long-distance hiking. The The Bigfoot Trail combines the two.

Eminent botanist John O. Sawyer and I once discussed the lack of connectivity between the wilderness areas in the Klamath Mountains. This led us to pour over maps, talk rare plants, and plan a path that would connect these wild places. In 2009, I first walked this route and over the past few years have re-hiked various pieces to “finalize” the trek I call the Bigfoot Trail. This project combines long-distance hiking and natural history by defining a thru-hike in one of the most species-rich temperate coniferous forest on Earth.

The Bigfoot Trail Alliance

The Bigfoot Trail Alliance

I recently launched a Kickstarter Campaign to fund the establishment of the Bigfoot Trail Alliance (BFTA) as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The BFTA will create a community committed to constructing, promoting, and protecting—in perpetuity—the Bigfoot Trail. I am asking you, noble reader, to become a founding member of this organization.

CLICK HERE FOR RADIO INTERVIEW ABOUT THE CAMPAIGN

In my time living in northwest California, I have fallen deeply in love with the uniqueness of the Klamath Mountains. So much so that I wrote a natural history and hiking guide called Conifer Country which documents and celebrates the region. While writing that book, I hiked thousands of miles in search of wild trees.

The trail begins on the subalpine slopes of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness, traverses the Klamath’s most spectacular peaks, crosses all its wild rivers, and ends at the edge of the continent in the temperate rainforest. It highlights all that Conifer Country has to offer.

The Bigfoot Trail Route

I believe that by establishing this route—and ultimately the BFTA—a deeper understanding and awareness will be fostered for this region. This trail, and organization, is about the other biota who live in the Klamath Mountains—ultimately to function as stewards for their protection.

Please follow this link to join the campaign to establish the Bigfoot Trail.

The Yule Tree

Evergreen conifers and the winter solstice

This info-graphic explores the long and storied history of bringing evergreen conifers into our homes near the end of each calendar year. From the tradition’s beginnings in northern Germany as the Yule Tree to the creation of the artificial tree, read on to explore the origins and evolution of our unique love affair with conifers.

This infographic explores the long and storied history of bringing evergreen conifers into our homes near the end of each calendar year.

This infographic explores the long and storied history of bringing evergreen conifers into our homes near the end of each calendar year.