- Author: Jeannette Warnert
Reposted from the UCANR News Blog
Even though there has been a deficit of fire in California forests for decades, their future is not hopeless, said UC Berkeley fire science professor and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher Scott Stephens in an interview with Craig Miller on KQED Science.
"The next 25 to 30 years are paramount. If you begin to do restoration, reduce density, make forests more variable in pattern, and less fuel, when you have episodes of drought and fire, it's going to be fine. The forests have been doing this for millennia. It's going to be fine," Stephens said.
However, under current conditions, in which fires have been regularly suppressed, the situation is dire.
"The forests used to burn every 12 to 15 years, but most places haven't been touched for 50 to 100 years. Today we have areas with 300 or 400 trees per acre, where you used to have 50 to 80," he said.
Even though, Stephens said he is an optimist. "There's still opportunity today to do restoration, so that when it does get warmer and warmer, as projected, the forests will be able to deal with that, deal with insects and disease and keep themselves intact."
- Author: Julie Van Scoy
Reposted from the UCANR Green Blog
As policy liberalization rapidly transforms the multi-billion-dollar cannabis agriculture industry in the United States, the need for regulation and assessment of environmental impacts becomes increasingly apparent.
A recent study led by UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic used high resolution satellite imagery to conduct a systematic survey of cannabis production and to explore its potential ecological consequences.
Published this spring in Environmental Research Letters, the study focused on the “emerald-triangle” in northern California's Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties, which many believe is the top cannabis-producing region in the United States.
The UC Berkeley-based Butsic and his co-author Jacob Brenner used Google Earth imagery to locate and map grow sites (both greenhouses and outdoor plots) in 60 watersheds. Most cannabis grow sites are very small, and have gone undetected when researchers used automated remote sensing techniques, which are commonly used to detect larger changes such as deforestation.
“We chose to use fine-grained imagery available in Google Earth and to systematically digitize grows by hand, identifying individual plants. Most plants stand out as neat, clear, little circles,” said Brenner, who is on the faculty of the Department of Environmental Studies and Science at Ithaca College. “The method was laborious — it took over 700 hours — but it proved to be highly accurate.”
Butsic and Brenner paired their image analysis with data on the spatial characteristics of the sites (slope, distance to rivers, distance to roads) and information on steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, both of which are listed as threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. These and other species are vulnerable to the low water flows, soil erosion, and chemical contamination that can result from nearby agriculture.
Results of the study show 4,428 grow sites, most of which were located on steep slopes far from developed roads. Because these sites will potentially use significant amounts of water and are near the habitat for threatened species, Butsic and Brenner conclude that there is a high risk of negative ecological consequences.
“The overall footprint of the grows is actually quite small [~2 square kiliometers], and the water use is only equivalent to about 100 acres of almonds,” says Butsic, who is in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at Berkeley. According to Butsic, California currently has more than one million irrigated acres of almonds.
He stresses that the issue lies in the placement of the sites: “Close to streams, far from roads, and on steep slopes — cannabis may be a case of the right plant being in the wrong place.”
Last year, California legislature passed laws designed to regulate medical marijuana production, and state voters will weigh in on whether to legalize recreational marijuana this coming fall. Given these changes as well as the profitability of cannabis production, Butsic expects that marijuana cultivation will expand into other sites with suitable growing conditions throughout the region. He and Brenner assert that ecological monitoring of these hotspots should be a top priority.
Bills recently signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown have made some advances in this direction — requiring municipalities to develop land use ordinances for cannabis production, forcing growers to obtain permits for water diversions, and requiring a system to track cannabis from when it is first planted until it reaches consumers.
But the researchers say that regulation will likely be a constant challenge because it will rely on monitoring procedures that are just now emerging, as well as voluntary registration from producers and budget allocation from the state for oversight and enforcement.
“Some of the same fundamental challenges that face researchers face regulators as well, primarily that cannabis agriculture remains a semi-clandestine activity,” says Brenner. “It has a legacy of lurking in the shadows. We just don't know — and can't know — where every grow exists or whether every grower is complying with new regulations.”
- Author: Jim Downing
Reposted from California Agriculture
When UC ANR conservation biologist Adina Merenlender launched the California Naturalist program in 2012, she was looking to do more than just educate people. She wanted to build a community — inspired to be stewards of the natural world and to push for the resources and policies needed to defend the state's threatened biodiversity.
“Success to me,” Merenlender said on an afternoon walk through the oak woodlands of the Hopland Research and Extension Center (REC), “is when the public connects directly with what UC has to offer and will go to bat for UC gardens, reserves and presses, and call for more faculty to study and teach natural history.”
Adina Merenlender, founder and director of the UC ANR California Naturalist program, is a UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist in conservation biology based at the Hopland Research and Extension Center and an adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley.
Today, the program is blossoming. More than 1,500 participants have completed a California Naturalist course. The program now has a full-time academic coordinator, Greg Ira, and has received grant funding from the National Science Foundation and the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and in 2015 was honored as the program of the year by the national Alliance of Natural Resource Outreach and Service Programs. The second statewide California Naturalist conference is scheduled for September 9–11 at the Pali Mountain Center in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Through partnerships with more than 30 science and environmental education organizations around the state, the California Naturalist program provides 40-hour certification courses focused on natural history as well as stewardship and communication. The training encourages California Naturalists to volunteer around the state with natural resource agencies and nonprofit organizations, and participants are encouraged to engage in research, environmental monitoring, restoration work and education and outreach.
The California Naturalist program encourages participants to engage in research, environmental monitoring and restoration work. Here, California Naturalists explore trace fossils with geologist Ed Clifton at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Monterey County.
“The desire to learn about natural history is insatiable,” Merenlender said. “We're giving motivated people a way to help out.”
The mix of science and action that characterizes the California Naturalist program mirrors the 20-year UC ANR career of Merenlender, a Cooperative Extension (UCCE) specialist based at Hopland REC and an adjunct professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley.
The threat that development poses to intact natural landscapes has driven Merenlender's work since her early years with UC ANR. In the late 1990s, Merenlender and her collaborators used satellite land-cover data to track and project the rapid expansion of vineyards in Sonoma County (Merenlender 2000). In calling out this agricultural growth as a threat to habitat and biodiversity, the work put Merenlender at odds with the powerful wine industry.
Merenlender stood by the work and her role as conservation biologist trying to change the world — and still does.
“I try to make my work constructive and to offer solutions,” she said. “But you do have to daylight the issues.”
Mediterranean stream restoration
Merenlender then led us down to a seasonal creek at Hopland REC that illustrates a related strand of her research — the restoration of streams in Mediterranean climate systems.
As part of a long-term study, one section of a creek degraded by early clearing and dredging was fenced in the 1980s to exclude deer and other large herbivores, while an adjacent section was left open.
Standing on the sun-bleached cobbles of the unfenced reach, Merenlender points out the dense vegetation that now covers the fenced area — much as it likely did before the area was settled.
Research by Merenlender and her collaborators has helped to transform the practice of stream restoration in Mediterranean climates.
In studying streams like this one, Merenlender and graduate student Jeff Opperman made two findings that have shaped the way stream restoration is conducted in much of California.
First, they determined that woody debris — the key to the pools and varied stream channels that characterize good habitat for native salmonids — is of a different nature in Mediterranean-climate oak woodland systems than in wetter coastal forests. In oak woodland areas like Hopland REC, the woody debris in creeks is generally alive — low branches of oaks, bays, and thickets of willows — while in coastal conifer forests, it is primarily dead wood — fallen trunks and branches.
Their second finding, illustrated by the fence enclosure, was that deer can inhibit the recovery of such ecosystems by eating woody plants before they have a chance to mature to the point where they can provide shade and the important woody debris.
Together, these results shifted the approach to stream restoration in Mediterranean ecosystems: Instead of introducing large woody debris, as is done in coastal evergreen forests, the focus is on creating conditions that allow stream vegetation to regenerate, providing important shade, and helping to restore stream morphology for improved salmon habitat.
Long-term study sites on Parson's Creek at Hopland REC show the effect of deer herbivory on the recovery of natural cover in a degraded riparian zone. A site not protected from deer, left, has virtually no woody vegetation. By contrast, a site fenced in the 1980s, right, is now densely vegetated, providing shade and helping to form pools, both of which benefit fish.
Rethinking agricultural ponds
Merenlender's work on vineyard expansion and stream restoration then came together in a body of research, conducted with several graduate students and other collaborators, that shifted the politics of grapes, fish and water in wine country.
It began with several studies of the role of water quantity in salmonid recovery in Mediterranean-climate watersheds (Christian-Smith and Merenlender 2010) and the impacts of upstream water use — from vineyards as well as rural residential pumping — on summer stream flows and juvenile salmon survivorship (Grantham et al 2012).
At the same time that her lab reported the collective impact on salmon survivorship of diverting water from streams to irrigate vineyards during the dry season, Merenlender's team provided models that demonstrated agricultural ponds placed correctly don't necessarily impact winter salmon runs as previously thought and should be used where possible to offset summer pumping and thus — in many, though not all, cases — provide a benefit to fish (Deitch et al 2013).
This finding helped to shift the thinking about farm ponds in the environmental community and among state water regulators, with the practical result that the review process, which was essentially stopped around 1993 due to concern for salmon and litigation by environmental groups, was resumed, allowing farmers to move forward with the permitting process for a new pond.
That work also changed Merenlender's reputation in the wine grape industry. Once seen as an antagonist for trying to stave off habitat conversion, she was invited to speak at grower meetings on water management solutions.
“You have to stick with it long enough that your enemies become your friends,” she said.
Half for us, half for them
But Merenlender still has concerns about the wine grape industry — and about the state of biodiversity conservation more broadly. While wine industry players large and small have embraced the idea of sustainability in their operations, many don't consider the conversion of natural landscapes into vineyards to be a problem, she said. Likewise, for all of California's environmental leadership in areas like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing air pollution, the state hasn't made a serious effort to stop the chief cause of biodiversity loss: the development of natural lands for residential and agricultural use.
“When we're talking about habitat, in a state with the most endangered species, we need to be thinking about what E.O. Wilson said: ‘Half for us, half for them,'” she said, quoting the renowned Harvard biologist considered the father of the academic study of biodiversity. “If we're serious about biodiversity, we're going to have to set meaningful targets for conserving California's native ecosystems and manage these ecosystems.”
Building support and enthusiasm for that type of conservation is one of Merenlender's hopes for the California Naturalist program. In the coming years, she foresees a day when the California Naturalists will play a role, perhaps through “day-at-the-Capitol” visits to Sacramento. She's also hoping that UC natural resource academics will connect directly with the California Naturalists about their research and information to help stave off a sixth mass extinction — capitalizing on the power of this new community.
“Working with our partnering organizations around the state, we are creating a whole new mode of natural resource extension,” she said.
With leadership from Associate Director Sabrina Drill, California Naturalist is dedicated to broadening the California Naturalist community to include more diversity in age, race and income.
One difficulty in raising money for the California Naturalist program is that institutional donors who fund environmental education tend to support only primary and secondary school programs; there's very little support for adult programs. Merenlender thinks that programs targeting young adults is essential.
“That's when you set your compass,” she said.
Above, California Naturalists learn about the plants and animals of the American River Parkway at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center near Sacramento.
Merenlender grew up in Los Angeles, and didn't have much interaction with the natural world in childhood beyond watching Wild Kingdom on Sunday evenings. She was more than halfway through her undergraduate years at UC San Diego when she got involved in her first conservation biology project, a study of African rhinoceroses.
Today, her research is focused on how conservation efforts can best support biodiversity, for instance by planning for habitat connectivity and the effects of the changing climate. She advises a number of land trusts and public land agencies on systematic conservation planning, and co-authored the first comprehensive book on wildlife corridor planning (Hilty et al 2012).
The threat of extinction is on Merenlender's mind even here in the 5,300 acres of quiet, protected hills and valleys that make up Hopland REC.
Tracyina rostrata, a small flowering annual, is now found only at Hopland REC. The center's staff monitor the known populations of the plant regularly, and its numbers appear to be shrinking.
“We used to have four sites,” Merenlender said. “Now it seems to be down to one site. Gulp.”
- Author: Kat Kerlin
Reposted from UC Davis Magazine
When wildfire ripped through two UC Davis natural reserves last summer, scientists conducting research there first took a pained look to see if their months or years of research just went up in flames. Then they did what one would expect from scientists: They began to study the effects.
Wildfires burned a record-busting 10.12 million acres in the U.S. in 2015. Among the first lands ignited that dry, hot summer were Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve, just 30 minutes west of Davis, and Donald and Sylvia McLaughlin Natural Reserve, two hours northwest of campus. These lands have served as outdoor labs and classrooms for decades.
Since the fires, researchers have started comparing before-and-after data on everything from wildflowers and insects to the impacts of climate change on species recovery.
Such research is expected to become increasingly relevant as the trend of warmer, drier climates and hotter, more intense fires continues across the state and world.
There's one thing Cathy Koehler wants to set straight: Fire is not “devastating.” At least not from an ecological perspective. It's simply a part of life in this area of the world.
She and her husband, Paul Aigner, are co-directors of McLaughlin Reserve, where they have lived for 13 years.
A former gold mining site, the reserve stretches across 7,000 acres of grassland, woodland and chaparral habitats.
It is revered by scientists as one of the few places on the planet where serpentine soils — which give rise to rare and endemic plants able to tolerate extreme soil conditions — sit side by side with “normal” soils. This makes comparison experiments between radically different soils in a natural environment fairly easy to arrange.
Koehler and Aigner know McLaughlin's nuances, nooks and crannies. They know where to find different patches of vegetation and where wildlife lives. And they can locate every experimental plot — down to a patch of plants along a side road.
So when, one after the other, the Rocky, and then the Jerusalem fires came raging through in late July and into August, the couple stayed. The reserve field station, which is well-protected from fire, became a staging area for the firefighters and a community refuge. Koehler and Aigner looked at the swirling flames coming over the hillside in awe, not fear.
“It was spectacular,” Koehler said, eyes wide with excitement and wonder at the memory. “Whenever a fire occurs, we drop everything and monitor the activity. Every summer, you have to expect that possibility.”
In some cases, the couple saved scientific experiments themselves by dousing nearby areas with water. But mostly, they helped the firefighters respond in the least intrusive way possible for the environment and the scientific experiments underway.
For example, the co-directors helped firefighters find existing firebreaks instead of bulldozing lines across natural lands. This helped spare experiments and sensitive habitat—places that would recover from fire but not necessarily from the disturbance of a bulldozer line.
On a dirt road inside the reserve last winter, fresh deer tracks dotted the mud. Koehler pointed to a series of pin flags in the distance. They marked some of environmental science and policy professor Susan Harrison's experimental plots, where research equipment would have been lost in the firefighting effort if not for the reserve directors.
“More and more, I feel like I couldn't do anything I do without the reserves,” Harrison said. “Reserve staff played an essential role in setting up a watering system for my climate study. And with the fires, Paul and Cathy not only protected these rare serpentine meadows, they saved experiments out there.”
Harrison studies the resiliency of ecosystems under climate change. She's been studying 80 grassland sites annually at McLaughlin for almost two decades, and 39 of them were affected by last summer's fires. Now Harrison is studying how quickly grassland plant species recover after fire.
She's not the only one viewing the fires as a new research opportunity.
Graduate student Moria Robinson is looking at how insects regenerate on plants after fire. Before the fires, she'd spent two years at McLaughlin collecting caterpillars to study food-web interactions among soils, plants and insects. The fires burned many of the plants where she'd been gathering specimens.
“McLaughlin is a place that's become a big part of my life, where I love being,” Robinson said. “I've become connected to the landscape. So it was hard to see it change.”
But while Robinson initially focused on what was lost, her adviser, UC Davis professor of ecology and evolution Sharon Strauss, helped her see what an asset two years of data on plants and insects before the fire could be for a post-fire comparison.
As the wildfire season now gives way to the wildflowers, Robinson said she's more excited for a field season than she has been in a long time.
“Once I started reading about fire ecology, I realized there are a lot of neat questions we can ask,” she said.
Wragg to riches
A faint buzzing sound came from atop a slope at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve this past winter. Graduate student Jordan Carey was flying a white drone above the hill taking aerial images. Forecasters predicted a wet winter, and he was studying how rock, mud, leaves and other debris flow down steep slopes and into streams after a fire. The data could be used to inform hazard debris flow models for urban areas, like Los Angeles.
Carey hadn't considered doing this project until the combination of the fires and an El Niño winter presented itself.
“In populated areas, debris flows present the potential for loss of life and hazards,” Carey said. “Obviously that's not the case here, but this is a good place to study it.”
The Wragg Fire was ignited a few hundred yards from the edge of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve on July 22, 2015, putting the reserve first in its path. It ripped through, burning cottonwoods, thick patches of chaparral, iconic blue oaks and railroad ties built into the trail. It even vaporized the reserve's one Porta-Potty.
Before the fire, Stebbins was a verdant canyon, punctuated by a ridgeline looking over Lake Berryessa. The Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument was designated just 12 days before the Wragg Fire's first spark. Stebbins is used by entomologists studying native bees and ants, veterinary researchers studying parasites and disease vectors on wildlife, and many other scientists.
The UC system has 10 natural reserves, and very few of them are open to the public. Stebbins is one of those rarities. Students from local schools visit for outdoor education, and the public takes advantage of what is arguably the area's most popular hiking trail. With the advent of social media, the once sleepy local secret now receives nearly 65,000 visitors a year. The reserve temporarily closed after the fire but reopens in May.
“It is emotional, in its way,” reserve director Jeffrey Clary said of the fire. “I'm a scientist, and I know that fire is part of the cycle. But at the same time, I spend a lot of time here and get to know the individual trees. There are all these nighttime photographs of the wildlife, of the gray foxes and the wood rats. I've seen their footprints. So you have to think about what's happened to all of them.
“But then what really kicks in is getting to see this kind of rebirth process and all the science that's getting to happen because we're here, so close to campus. We can get out right away and learn something from this. We can make all of California better positioned to deal with these big disturbances.”
For now, the reserve is recovering. Signs of rebirth are everywhere. New life grows beneath charred shrubs and trees. Green seedlings emerge from blackened earth. Life, insistently, goes on.
And yet questions remain: What will the future forest look like under a changing climate? And how should we as humans prepare for it and respond to it?
“We're going to learn a lot, and some of it is going to be troubling,” Clary said. “It's one thing for a fire to happen. It's another for it to be documented so that everyone gets to learn from it.”
This article appears in the spring 2016 issue of UC Davis Magazine./h3>/h3>
- Author: Jeannette Warnert
Reposted from UCANR news
The prescribed burn was carefully orchestrated by CalFire. Wide swaths of vegetation had been cleared around the 7-acre and 9-acre study areas and the weather carefully monitored before a truck-mounted “terra torch” sent streams of flammable gel into the brush, igniting a raging fire.
The fires at Hopland set up a study for a UC Berkeley doctoral student researching post-fire nitrogen cycling, provided a training ground for new CalFire recruits who will be battling blazes in the summer, and launched a new partnership between HREC and CalFire.
Chaparral shrublands, which cover about 7 percent of California natural lands, are vital California ecosystems. Chaparral contains 25 percent of the state's endemic plant and animal diversity. Nature and Native Americans burned chaparral at regular intervals for millennia, providing fresh new growth for foraging animals.
“After a chaparral fire, you typically get a flush of ephemeral wildflowers, some of which are very rare, which you haven't seen for 30 years or since the last fire,” said Lindsey Hendricks-Franco, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley who is conducting research at Hopland. “The amazing thing about these plants is their seeds can survive in the seedbank for decades. Then heat or smoke or an open canopy can stimulate them to germinate. It can be beautiful.”
The most abundant plant in Hopland chaparral, chamise, is barely fazed by fire. The plant's underground burl will soon sprout after a fire, and chamise seeds readily germinate in ash-enriched soil.
To understand the role of nitrogen cycling in the post-fire chaparral ecosystem, Hendricks-Franco and her research staff clambered over dense brush before the fire to collect soil samples and place ingenious heat sensors that document the burn temperature. After the fire, she returned to each site to collect post-treatment soil samples and heat sensors.
“It's a challenge to put sensors in a fire this hot. Most heat sensors are destroyed by the intense heat,” Hendricks-Franco said. “I painted four- by four-inch tiles with a variety of heat-sensitive paints. The paints change color at different temperatures. When I collect the tiles, they will give me an idea about the temperatures reached in the fire.”
The controlled burn at Hopland was the first step in rebuilding a partnership with CalFire, said Kim Rodrigues, who has served as the facility's director since 2014. The areas burned in April were previously burned by CalFire for fire research in the 1990s.
“We've been here since 1951 offering applied and relevant research,” Rodrigues said. “It's primarily research on ecosystem management in oak woodlands, grassland and chaparral. Fire on the landscape is a management tool.”
The 5,800-acre research facility is one of nine such centers managed by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in a variety of California ecosystems, from high desert near the Oregon border, low desert in the Imperial Valley, Sierra Nevada forests and San Joaquin Valley farmland. Hopland is also home to 500 sheep.
Hopland CalFire battalion chief Michael Maynard was the incident commander at the April controlled burns, which he said also fulfilled CalFire objectives.
“It's good to be back here to join up with the University of California,” Maynard said. “The fire falls into our realm of training and expertise and we're helping their realm of expertise, which is research. There are 10 plots on this specific research project, so we'll be back soon.”
Maynard brought in newly hired firefighters for training on setting and controlling a prescribed burn.
“It's important that we brush up on our skills. We have seasonal employees that have hired on early and are participating. So the all-around training value is incredible and pays off later in the summer,” Maynard said.
CalFire will be back at Hopland in the fall to implement another chaparral burn so Hendricks-Franco can compare the fate of nitrogen in areas that burn before the hot, dry summer season to areas that burn in the fall and are followed by rain.
View scenes from the controlled burn in the video posted on YouTube.