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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Posted on January 4, 2012, in Alpaugh California and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Projects like this DO make a difference. Love your second photo – the one of the wetland.

  2. Hi Tyler! I like your blog. I was looking for pictures of Atwell Island and came across your post. Your pictures are the only good ones out there : D.

  3. I work at Atwell Island from time to time. It is looking great out there. Increasingly at other preserves, we use prescribed fires before the bassia goes to seed. It works well and is over in an afternoon. The natives California plants come right back as they have evolved with fire.

  1. Pingback: Dawn Patrol: Another reason to wake up each morning. « Tales of a Nomad Biologist

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