Monthly Archives: January 2012

Ventana Skies

The absolute highlight of the work in Ventana (aside from the ladybugs, I suppose) were the morning and evening hikes to and from the work site. The head of the trail we were working on was a hair under two miles from our campsite — all uphill — and the hike took us across a set of beautiful ridges, made even more awe-inspiring by the fantastic show the sky and the Pacific Ocean put on for us.

I’d experienced the ocean affect a few times before Ventana, but never from high above it.

I took this photograph the morning of my birthday, the whole trip was something like a gift from my supervisors.

Behind that peak the Pacific is masked with clouds. Far below where this picture was taken (flirting with the fog) is the campsite we stayed in.

Ow, my poor useless eyes.

Most mornings I woke up long before anyone else and stumbled around the campsite trying to make coffee (blind) as quietly as I possibly could.

Another of the numerous snags, backlit.

Ladybugs in Ventana

On the third day of trail-cutting we made an absolutely awesome discovery. As one of the other workers slowly hacked his way through the underbrush he caught sight of movement by his ankles. Upon closer inspection he started screaming for everyone else to come and see what he’d found.

What he’d found was a stand of ferns covered with adult ladybugs. Disturbed by his errant swinging, they exploded out of their hiding places and filled the air. The rest of the crew (myself included) arrived in time to see a veritable cloud of beetles flying every which way. It was amazing, but short lived and we eventually went back to work.

A few hours later I decided to grab my camera and return to the stand of ferns to see if any of the Ladybugs had returned to their homes. (I’m pretty sure theirs a children’s song about that.)

They had and I got a few pictures before I had to get back to work.

There weren’t as many beetles as before, but there were enough for my purposes.

Unfortunately, most of the swarm had left the area when I returned, however there were still a few hundred crawling around on the sunlit ferns.

They were still flying around as well, and didn’t seem too enthusiastic about having their picture taken.

Not all of them were particularly good at hiding, however.

The brighter side of forest fires

Previously I posted an overview of some work I did in the Ventana Wilderness. The photographs in that post were chosen primarily to give a balanced view of the forest after it had been burned to cinders a few years ago. The tallest trees in the forest are all dead, charred and leafless, but they’re largely still standing, leaving a hiker traversing the forest in a blackened mausoleum of creaking snags and ash.

On the other hand, life at the ground level has exploded. With more sun reaching the ground (there’s nothing like a canopy to block its passage) the soil has long since erupted into a thick mass of grasses, saplings, and ferns. Some of the saplings already reach five or six feet off the ground, and stands of regenerating forests were thick enough to warrant simply going around as we re-cut our trail.

Today’s photographs focus more on those instances of positive regeneration than upon the blackened snags. Enjoy.

New growth surrounds dead stems.

On break, it wasn’t as hot as the desert, but nor was it particularly cool. Note how the new growth has almost completely covered the old dead wood.

Luckily, although the fire was intense in the valley we were working in, it didn’t touch much of the rest of the park.

Places where the fire had been less severe regenerated considerably quicker.

In the absence of a shading canopy, new growth explodes from the forest floor.

Trail Work in The Ventana Wilderness: October 2011

When my job in Alpaugh was finally done I was temporarily without work, and was invited to enjoy a few days of RnR in Santa Cruz. My internship with the BLM had been arranged through a company called The American Conservation Experience (ACE), and they had dormitory style housing there where I could stay and wait until my next job (Read: posts about Catalina Island) was to begin.

Santa Cruz is wonderful, it really is, but I decided I’d rather be working than sitting on my hands waiting to head down to Catalina. So after a few days of enjoying mild temperatures and the glorious Pacific I joined an ACE trail crew and was sent down to the Ventana Wilderness.

Trail work is… well it can be a lot of things. For starters, It is among the most basic forms of conservation work. It can range from simply brushing trails, to regrading and tamping paths, to constructing staircases out of rough stone, or replacing water-bars on eroded hillsides. It is incredibly physical work, but at the same time it is (often) quite satisfying. After all, by your hands a trail is made — if that’s something you’re into.

In Ventana, the work was extraordinarily simple, really. A few years prior to our arrival on the scene a “planned” fire event had gotten out of control (it happens) and had fried a huge chunk of the park. Our job was to recut a trail that had been destroyed when the flames moved through. People had reportedly been getting lost in the area, expecting a path that was no longer there.

Fire management is a tricky subject in California, much of the forest within the state could quite happily weather a small burn every few years. Unfortunately, artificially creating a natural-esque patchwork pattern of burns that both invigorate the natural landscape and don’t scare the residents speechless seems to be beyond the abilities of… well anyone alive really. As a result, much of California’s (very) flammable forested regions are not burned as frequently as they could be. In Ventana this meant that the region we were now cutting a new-old trail through had been the site of a disastrously hot fire that had killed hundreds of enormous Ponderosa Pines.

As a result, Ventana today represents an interesting (though hardly unprecedented) juxtiposition between death and regrowth. Yes, all the old trees are dead wood. Yes they creak omnimously in the wind, and YES they fell from the sky frequently enough that we were constantly on the watch for hanging dead-wood. But at the same time there was a staggering amount of life around. The photographs in this first post about the area will make an attempt to balance the two sides of the issue, in the future I’ll take time to focus on each in turn.

The flames that killed those trees were reportedly ~200 feet tall…. and I want to be a wilderness firefighter some day, what is wrong with me…?

The fire top-killed all the larger trees, but the seed bank survived the experience, Only a few years later we had our hands full chopping a new path into the undergrowth.

The still standing dead trees were a worrying hazard. No one wants to be near one when it finally succumbs to gravity…

The trail we were working on, that we “finished,” was incredibly rough. Our assignment was more to give wayward hikers something to latch on to rather than to create something perfect.

It’s obvious enough that the fire left horrific scars in the valley we were working in. To some extent this is a tragedy, it will be a long time before this area returns to what is once was. However this is not entirely a bad thing. Land Management (and with it Fire Management) is far from an exact science, and areas like this do hold potential for wonderful surprises.

In the coming days, as I tell more about my time in Ventana, I’ll attempt to show what I mean by that.

Water in the desert

Water is a major issue in Southern California, billboards all up and down the 99 and 5 make sure everyone stays well informed about what their politicians are doing to protect (or ruin) the water rights of the area’s many farmers. Without water piped down from the mountains the area would be unfarmable, although that was not always the case. The Atwell Island restoration project seeks to recapture a bit of what the area around Alpaugh had been before the arrival of american agriculture. That there is water at all here speaks volumes of their success, that there is so little of it speaks to how far they have to go before they’re finished.

I’ve shown a few pictures of the Atwell Island restoration project, but I have many more, and might as well share them now before I get too far off topic with other places and jobs.

The water level raised and lowered depending on the status of the many pumps around the project. Sometime leaving islands where before their had been paths before.

Sunrise over the wetland

On occasion we had to paddle out into one of the larger ponds to access infested islands away from the edge. We had a rowboat, but didn’t have a set of oars, and made due instead with a kayak paddle and a long length of fence-post.

Sunrise over one of the ponds.

Horned Lizards: Another side project in Alpaugh

As it turns out, there was a lot more going on with the grazing study I participated in that was apparent at first blush. While I spent a two weeks of early mornings squinting at a fading GPS unit and laying down transects there was another team entirely surveying plots for evidence of reptile life.

A week into the grazing experiment we were joined by two wandering herpetologists, (snake gypsies, toad-hobos, call them what you will). Who were loaned to the project by our mutual bosses at A.C.E (The American Conservation Experience, see the resources section above for details). They spent a few hours each day searching each experimental plot for lizards and snakes. Balancing their need to be thorough with an equally pressing need to move through each plot before it got either too hot or too cold for their cold blooded subjects.

It turns out that the grazing study, which at one point was looking only at the effects of cattle graze on Kangaroo Rat Habitat, had had a few riders attached to it as it worked its way through the BLM’s approval process. Every BLM scientist, no matter what they studied, wanted a piece of the pie. This meant that the studies goals quickly became quite a bit more ambitious, which isn’t a bad thing at all, unless you’re caught in the grinder.

I didn’t have time to go out “herping” with the lizard people, but I did seek out the local Horned Lizards on my own later. They’re adorable after all.

They're absolutely adorable, and the young ones are smaller than the palm of your hand.

There were larger individuals as well, although reportedly not full adults. Flattening out like that makes them harder to swallow, as if the spikes weren't enough.

Luckily their "horns" kept them safe from the unfair predatory attentions of my hungry coworkers.

Those horny projections are really the best defense they've got, although they camouflaged well on the sandy desert ground, they were terrible at escaping our careful grabs.

See how well he blends in with the ground.

Small Mammal Trapping in Alpaugh: Tippmann Kangaroo Rats

The vast majority of our time in Alpaugh was spent destroying Bassia. Thankfully however, that assignment wasn’t the total of what we accomplished while living there. A month after we arrived at Atwell Island the BLM scientists there began working on a grazing study that they’d been conceptualizing for awhile and we were quickly drafted to help them. Unfortunately for the BLM employees there is a hard cap on the number of hours that proper government employees can work, as interns we had a bit more flexibility in our workload and so we were able to fill in on shifts that they wouldn’t have been allowed too.

As I’ve mentioned before (I believe) the BLM leases its lands to ranchers for grazing. The ranchers can support more cattle that way and the BLM makes a tidy profit off the arrangement. However, the BLM isn’t a ranching organization, their job is land management, and so it falls to them to decide how much grazing is too much, and where the lines should be drawn.

One such line surrounds the habitat of the threatened Tippmann Kangaroo Rat. As a threatened species, the preservation of their habitat is crucial. In theory, Kangaroo Rats thrive in areas of scrub land. Too much ground cover hampers their movement from place to place and too little makes them easy targets for owls and coyotes. Since there are no native grazers to maintain a vegetative level condusive to Kangaroo Rat habitat near Atwell Island, the BLM thought to bring in cattle to mimic a natural process.

The studies purpose was to determine how much grazing would be optimal for Kangaroo Rat populations. Simple really. Our job was to go out just before sundown to bait the hundreds of Kangaroo Rat traps (Kangaroo Rats of all species are nocturnal), then return at sun up to help the BLM scientists check the traps and release the captives before they died of dehydration in their tiny metal prisons. It was a constant race against the clock since we had no interest in attempting to set traps in full dark (its exactly as unfun as it sounds), nor did we want any of our rare charges to expire during the day.

Captured rats were identified, weighed, sexed (male or female, fertile or not), and tagged. In time the researchers will be able to determine the new “best practice” for grazing lands that support Kangaroo rats, hopefully they find the answers they seek before the population sinks too much lower.

Tagging and bagging, just not in that order. They didn’t seem thrilled about the process, despite the free earrings.

Southern California Boneyards

I’m hysterically lucky, I get to tromp around in the woods, or on the beach, or in the desert, all the time and call it “work.” These are pictures from a boneyard (A place where old farm equipment goes to die) I stumbled upon in southern California. I’m not a farmer and I wasn’t so much as a twinkle in my father’s eye when these machines were functional, so I have no idea what they actually do. Thresh something maybe? There are chutes and belts and absurd looking attachments everywhere. Paint them gaudily and they wouldn’t look out of place in a Doctor Seuss story. Harvesting Shmeep, for the farmers to keep, or mowing down Krell for their wives to sell. They could be lime green and each would be operated by no less than a dozen of the most ornately dressed figments of the good Doctors imagination.

There is literally nothing around them except for BLM managed grasslands and an occasional alfalfa field.

I did have an up to date tetanus shot, but I decided not to climb inside any of them. Perhaps the insides would have been cooler still, but there’s also the chance they would have been full of spiders. Regardless, the pictures from their exteriors are pretty awesome (I think at least, I have been wrong before).

A closer view at the rightmost. Is that a conveyor belt in the interior?

From the other side. You can see where tool, or possibly spare parts, were fastened to the exterior.

The next in line. Its collapsing a bit more than the previous one, but look at those wheels?

Some gears. Long since rusted in place.

This one's in far worse shape structurally.


Normally I don’t bother taking pictures of man-made artifacts when I’m hiking around, but those were too cool looking to pass up. Unfortunately, no one I asked could give me a good time frame for when they might have been left there, certainly more than fifty years ago. Beyond that, no one was sure.

Atwell Island: Pull it all and let god sort it out.

As I’ve already mentioned, I spent the last half of the summer of 2011 working in southern California in a town called Alpaugh. Alpaugh didn’t have a whole lot going for it. However I have no complaints about the job I was sent there to do. Along with three other interns I spent the majority of my time in Alpaugh removing an invasive annual called Five-Hooked Bassia from a restored wetland area. I hope that my efforts actually made a difference, though its often hard to tell with invasive plants, especially those that have entrenched themselves deeply in the seed-bank.

Starting at Dawn was actually wonderful. I'm not so much a morning person as I am a horrible coffee addict that recognizes that pretending to be a "morning person" gives me an excuse to drink a pot of coffee before anyone else even wakes up...

Atwell Island was the name of the BLM site where I was stationed. Historically, it had been a wetland. Unfortunately as agricultural pressure in Tulare County increased the water tables dropped and the wetland that had been their for all of living memory vanished.

A mile in any direction is hard packed desert or cotton fields. Not here though.

Over a decade ago, the land managers in the Bakersfield office of the BLM decided to fix that. Slowly, the wetland at Atwell Island is being restored (its considered a “model” restored wetland in California by virtue of the fact that in spite of budget cuts and a climate difficulties, it still has water in it). The native plants and animals are returning, some of the waterfowl reportedly arrived days after the pumps started. It is a beautiful place already, and will only become nicer as time goes on.

At dawn. Most of the foreground isn't Bassia at all. Thankfully, it was thick enough as it was.

Assuming it isn’t dominated by an invasive plant first.

Over the course of the nearly three months I was at Atwell, we killed a lot of Bassia, a truly stupendous amount, we pulled miles of the stuff, racing against nature to get it out of the ground, dried, and burned before it could go to seed. We removed it with clippers, and hoes, and with booted feet and our bare hands when nothing else seemed to work. The soil was baked hard, and although the roots didn’t go deep, missing a root fragment and allowing the plant to recover wasn’t an option for any of us.

With Hoes. This picture was actually taken on an island in the middle of the wetland. Rowing to work in the mornings had a certain charm, I guess.

We did not succeed. The finale of the project was marred by the emergence of the Bassia’s seeds, each sporting the five barbed hooks that give the plant its name. They clung to everything they could, which was — of course — why the plants were everywhere in the first place.

With our Hands. For reference, the pile of dead plants in the background is easily three times the size of the car in the fore.

It would be easy to get discouraged by the fact that the seeds were already emerging by the time we finished the project, however the territory we finished prior to that day was impressive. Someday I’ll figure out the mileage. We did the best we could, even after it started going to seed we kept pulling, and we finished everything we had hoped (in our most optimistic of initial appraisals) that we would finish.

Two of my coworkers who haven't been getting enough photo-love so far.

And this project did matter, it wasn’t as exciting as herding Bison on Catalina, but it also felt much more like real land management. Assuming our removal of the Bassia takes, then in the future the native species that were planted to complement the man-made wetland area will have a better chance of survival. Their continued existence will allow a larger community of migratory birds and waterfowl to visit the wetlands, and a little bit of nature will be a smidgen more whole.

This road goes on forever, and the piles of dead Bassia do as well. A mile down this road the ponds start, even at this hour (high noon by the shadows) they would be alive with the activities of hundreds of birds and other animals.

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