Islands in the Sky

Sky islands are communities of plants & animals in places like Arizona characteristic of more northern ecologies. Altitude substitutes for latitude. They are remnant populations, surviving from a time when the earth was much cooler during the most recent ice age. As the earth started to warm about 10,000 years ago, these cooler-adapted communities moved up the mountains. They are like islands because they are surrounded by scrub or desert. That makes them precious and vulnerable, since they are unconnected to other islands or to the larger populations of their similar species, i.e. from seed/genetic banks to regenerate if a population was extirpated locally. It also makes them extremely interesting, since you can essentially go through biomes from hot desert to something like Canada by walking up hill and they provide lessons for adaption when climates change.

We came to the sky island at Ramsey Canyon to see Apache pine, pictured above. I learned that Apache pine have an ecology kind of like longleaf and kind of like ponderosa. Since I love both those species, I wanted to get to know these too. Apache pine are mostly present in Mexico’s Sierra Madre. They extend into the USA in parts of New Mexico and Arizona on patches like Ramsey Canyon. The Nature Conservancy owns a the preserve at Ramsey Canyon. I asked if I could talk to the steward of the place, and Eric Anderson was good enough to spend the morning with us, explaining the unique ecology of this part of Arizona. Eric and I are pictured below.

Ramsey Canyon sits at the nexus of four disparate biomes. To the north are the Rockies; south are the Sierra Madre; west is the Sonoran Desert and east is the high Chihuahua Desert. All of these influence the plant and animal communities, and you find species associating in ways like no place else. For example, Eric showed us agave cactus next to Apache pine, not far from Douglas fir and partly in the shade of massive sycamores.

You can see some of this above and below. The Douglas fir surprised me. There were some really big ones. I associate Douglas fir with the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. I did not expect to find them thriving so far south and near such dry deserts.

Most of the timber from the region was cut in the late 19th century, with the wood used for houses, mines and fuel in what were then fast-growing places like Tombstone and Bisbee, at the time among the fastest growing cities in the USA. Eric thinks that accessible forests were was mostly clear cut and the wood hauled away. Forests regenerated, but they were very different from those they displaced. The open and park-like coniferous forests were replaced by thick brushy forests of scrub oak. What these forests mostly produced was fuel for disastrous fires. When conifers did grow back, they also came in thick, what foresters call “dog hair” woods. These provide little space for the food that supports wildlife, and, like the scrub, they burn very hot.
On a tangent, Eric told us that the oak trees do not drop their leaves in autumn. They hold them throughout the winter and drop them in spring, before the hot and dry period in April and May. Those are the hottest two months. After that, the rains arrive and the wetter and cloudier weather cools the hills.

Fire was a key component of the pine forests. It burned through every 7-10 years, but those fires were low intensity. It knocked out the scrub but big trees were largely immune. The new fire regime featured less frequent but hotter fires that destroyed much of the standing forest and burned to the bare earth. It was a terrible cycle and we are still suffering. You can see a cross section of an Apache pine in the picture above. The thick bark is almost immune to low intensity fire. The two cuts you see below are about the same age. The one grew in an open forest; they other was part of a “dog hair” forest.

TNC wanted to reestablish natural rhythms, but could not used fire as much as the the natural ecology would indicate because there is too much chance of it getting away into nearby inhabited places. Another complication is that Ramsey Canyon is surrounded by wilderness areas. You would think that wilderness areas would be more “natural,” but you would be wrong. These areas were also impacted by the logging and mining of past, but now they are frozen in that state. They also grew back in the scrub and “dog hair” manner.  They are full of fuel and are liable to burn in that disastrous way I mentioned above. Because they are officially called wilderness, they are subject to various restrictions and cannot be managed to reduce fuel and fire risk in ways that would be applied elsewhere.

On the TNC land, they have thinned down the scrub oak on the north facing slopes and they hauled away the cutting. This is not as good as thinning followed by prescribed fire, but it as close as they can do under the current restraints. Some beneficial results are already clear. We saw regeneration of Apache and Chihuahuan pine, seedlings and young trees. The young Apache pine look a lot like longleaf in their grass and bottle brush stages.
There was a nice section of almost pure Apache pine. We could see carbon on the trunks and speculated that this area was fortunate to have a few low intensity fires pass through. It is amazing what comes back when you reestablish some of the natural factors. You can see the thinned brush above and below. Eric says that before the thinning, it was almost impossible to walk through the brush. Since the thinning, he has noticed that raptors like hawks have come to the area and more wildlife in general is present.

Eric shared a poignant story about the guys who do the thinning. They are convicts from the local prison. It is sought after work for them and Eric says that they are usually hard-working and thoughtful men, but with the big problem is that they cannot stay out of trouble. He says that when they get out on parole, they often come by with their wives or mothers to show them the work. They are proud of the work they did and the restoration they helped encourage. Eric stays in touch with some of them, but it is hard for them to stay on the straight and narrow. When they get out, they often fall in with the same sorts of people and lifestyles that caused them the trouble in the first place.

TNC is doing wonderful work to protect and regenerate these precious sky islands, and they do such excellent work wherever they are. I love what they are have done and are doing with longleaf. Theirs is the perfect combination of doing-learning-adapting and doing again. I have visited TNC preserves all over the country. Seeing their work and hearing about it from the people doing it is a great privilege.
Below is a link to more information about Ramsey Canyon.

Learning more about the local ecology

Went down to Piney Grove in Sussex County on a Nature Conservancy tour. They are restoring 3200 acres in Sussex County and looking to do even more. I visited once before but it is always fun to look at forests, always fun to hear about managing them and this time Chrissy came along.

The goal is to recreate a longleaf pine savanna and protect the endangered red cockaded woodpecker. This takes time, maybe 50-70 years or more. In the meantime, they are using lobolly that were already on the land. A loblolly savanna shares can be a substitute, but not quite as good.

Longleaf pine ecosystems, as I have written many times, is one of the most diverse in North America. They once covered 93 million acres in the southern USA. They were reduced to only 3 millions acres and literally only 200 trees in Virginia. The key to longleaf restoration is fire and TNC is applying this to its property on Piney Grove.

After touring Piney Grove and learning about the pines and the various flowers and grasses the under story, we went kayaking on the Nottoway River with TNC guys explaining the local environment. This river is clean and healthy, since it most of the watershed is in fields and forests. The water was shallow, but enough to float.

There are lots of big cypress trees near the shore. Their roots form protection for the shorelines. Natural levies line the banks and a little inland from are flood plain forests. It is a beautiful riparian ecosystem.

My picture show the kayaking on the Nottoway. Next is the pine savanna. You can see the current generation of loblolly and the – we hope – new generation of longleaf. After that are narrow leaf sunflower in bloom and finally the road through Piney Grove.

Lobbying for forests

Espen came along to this year’s forestry lobbying event. We went to see staffers involved in forestry or environment for the offices of Senators Warner & Kaine, and those of Representatives Connolly, Wittman, Goodlatte & Griffith.

We emphasized the urgent need to fix the way we fight wildfires and the important opportunity to use more wood in new ways through the Timber Innovation Act. I feel passionate about both these things. I know that we cannot avoid fires, but we can often choose place and times when they will be beneficial and not so dire. In the last year, I have become an evangelist for new uses of mass timber. I am eager to advocate for both these things. We also talked about tax policies. I let my colleagues do the talking. These are important issue too, but they are not among my key issues.

We were lucky enough to speak with Rep Connolly himself. Connolly is my Representative. We got to know him when he was Providence District seat on the Fairfax County Board. Chrissy met him a couple times when she was president of the Providence Park HOA. I always liked him and have voted for him. We talked a little about his support for the Mosaic District and the Gerald Connolly Trail, which we enjoy. There are no tree farms in Fairfax County, so we could not talk directly about that.

My pictures show similar views of the Capitol, the first with Espen. It was a nice, crisp day and the Capitol looked particularly beautiful today. The second last picture is General George Henry Thomas. He was a Virginian who chose to fight for the Union. Last is a sign on the Metro. I am not sure the prospect of turning an escalator into a slide would discourage young men.