Category Archives: Alpaugh California

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.

Castoffs and leftovers: A Candid Description of the BLM

From the Journal: 9/21/2011 (Alpaugh, California)

Today I was treated to a bit of an explanation about how the department of the interior divvied up its holdings. The Parks Service got everything that was truly extraordinary: Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite, The Everglades, et al. The Forest Service, being originally devoted to harvesting timber, was given all the really productive forests. The Green Mountains, The White Mountains, and the Finger lakes all spring to mind. Finally, the Borough of Land Management (BLM) got everything that the federal government couldn’t give away to homesteaders. They got the barren mountains, the driest (and least picturesque deserts), the scrub-land, and the swamps.

See: Unappealing Scrubland

Someday, young land management interns, all of this will be yours... except that black cloudy bit over there.

As far as I can tell, this is largely true. The BLM manages truly staggering amounts of land, 264 MILLION acres total (70 Million more than the forest service), and in my limited experience they seem to be fairly pragmatic about their day-to-day operations. Much of the land is multi-use, meaning people are free to come and go on it as they please, however other tracts have been designated for energy production (both fossil fuel derived and green), grazing, and species conservation.

Perhaps more relevant to me (and you gentle bio-friendly reader), since they don’t get the press that the other arms of the Department of the Interior do, the competition for jobs within the BLM is far lower.

Alpaugh Tradeoffs

From the Journal: 8/5/2011 (Alpaugh, California)

One week down and no complaints — yet. True: My lips are burnt raw, but the rest of me is bronzed (insofar as  I tan). Its hellishly hot by 10AM, but we start work at 6 and get off by 2. There’s no internet, but every so the stars align and I my phone tells me I have a new email. There’s Arsenic in the water, but… actually that’s pretty horrible.  I’m driving alot, but the BLM is reimbursing me for most of it.

Everything bad has a flip side. Except that whole Arsenic thing. Eugh.

I mean, it had its moments.

Ghost town that it was, working in Alpaugh was still pretty amazing. As with all things, especially jobs, there are trade-offs that have to be made. For me at least, the lions share of my happiness can be assured simply by having interesting and intelligent coworkers. In Alpaugh at least, I did not lack in that department.

But yeah, the Arsenic thing was pretty foul (and it got worse before it got better).

On Homonyms and Emergency Rooms

From the Journal: 8/29/2011 (Alpaugh, California)

Plus Side: Went job searching today. Downside: Was able to go because of a trip to the ER in Delano. Idiotically, I slashed my hand open on a garden hoe. The ER doctor gladly glued it shut and billed me $100 for the fifteen minute job, which opened up again almost as soon as I got back to Alpaugh. I did learn a bit from the whole experience, though. Never tell a ER doctor that “A Ho cut you” when you walk into his office clutching your bloody hand. (He apparently didn’t see the humor of the Homonym.)

In retrospect, spending so much time sharpening everything wasn't the best idea.

While transferring a bag of parakeet seed (more on why later) from a wheelbarrow into my trunk I accidentally slashed my hand open on a garden hoe that had been lying there, blade up, since before lunch. We’d made a habit of sharpening the tools we used on a day to day basis in Alpaugh, including the hoes, until they were razor-edged. The work dulled them quickly and it was extraordinarily bad luck that the hoe in question had been sharpened only hours before. In all honesty I could probably have gotten away with not going to the hospital, especially considering that I recovered just fine after reopening the cut hours after having it closed. However, at the time the cut seemed deep enough to warrant the trip to Delano if not much concern on my part, hence the attempt at humor with the ER doctor.

I thought it was funny at least. Some people are just boring I guess.

Alpaugh California: Overview

I spent the better part of three months in 2011 (Late July to early October) in Alpaugh, an unincorporated town of (reportedly) ~600 in Tulare County, California. Alpaugh is a one stop sign town. It is also a one gas station town. A one grocery store town, and a two restaurants, one school, one post office, and a not much else town. Perhaps there was more to it than I could see in my explorations, but unfortunately I lacked a native guide and I had few opportunities to meet the locals since my nearest neighbors were either Bureau of Land Management employees (who didn’t hang out in town), farmers, or were the omnipresent California marijuana cultivators (who had no interest in talking to strangers, especially those who worked for the feds).

Adding to my troubles on the meeting people front was the near impossibility of bumping into someone casually. With the exception of the cafe in town, there didn’t seem to be a local hang-out a stranger could justifiably walk into without attracting a lot of negative attention. Moreover, it was a twelve mile drive for gas and a twenty mile drive to the nearest Wifi connection, both of which were located in towns that bustled in a way that Alpaugh never did.

Since it seems like it might be difficult to adequately describe Alpaugh (and it does merit a description) with what was there, perhaps it will be easier to describe it by saying was wasn’t. For instance, there wasn’t potable water, apparently what poured out of the taps was laced with arsenic (and later sulfur). There also wasn’t much shade and for that matter there weren’t really any trees to speak of. The biggest tree around was a non-native Mulberry (I believe), which was carefully marked on a map in the house I lived in, and was lovingly called George by those of us who had grown up accustomed to playing in the shade of a closed canopy. George was a little over two miles away, a trip which could have been made blindfolded due to the utter lack of traffic, or crowds, or bends of any real significance in the roads.

During the day the sun beat down mercilessly and made the place a ghost-town populated mostly by wandering dogs and circling hawks and vultures. When I asked how people managed to survive in the heat, I was told — I hoped jokingly– that it wasn’t really considered “hot” until the mercury tipped past 105 degrees, and that I’d “Get used to it.” Thankfully I did.

On the other hand, nights were pitch black, clear, and dry. With no clouds and no humidity to speak of the stars were fantastic. There were barn owls living in the palm trees by my house and families of both burrowing owls and great horned owls within a few miles. None of them were particularly put off by humans, I imagine they were all living too well on the areas ubiquitous rodents to be bothered by my constant attention.

On yet another hand (I’m at three now, correct?) the mornings in Alpaugh were stunning.There were mountains on the horizons, visible at dawn and dusk and but made invisible during the day by the vile plume of smog seeping eastward from LA. And since I worked on a BLM holding called Atwell Island, an artificial wetland sequestered carefully in a (recently) dry lake-bed in this otherwise inhospitable valley, there were birds everywhere and….

Here I’ll cut myself off before I stray too far into the specifics of my job in Alpaugh. Suffice it to say that while the town has little to recommend it (beyond fantastically inexpensive Mexican food), the work more than made up for the location. As I tell more about the project itself I’ll let you be the judge.

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