When I arrived in Modoc county five months ago, I had no idea what to expect. I had read about Alturas, CA on wikipedia, but that gave me only a limited idea of what I would find (read: I was expecting a lot of cows and not very many people, which was extremely accurate). However, I was fairly certain that I would not be having the stereotypical California experience. There wouldn’t be any malls or beaches or nightlife (unless you count the unbelievable views of the Milky Way), but I was fine with that. I was ready to explore the outdoors, see beautiful places, discover new plants and animals and to make some new friends. So that’s what I did.
My freedom to explore was the best part of my experience in Alturas. Nearly every weekend I was visiting some new place in California, Oregon or Nevada or camping in the mountains just outside Alturas. At work, my mentor encouraged me to visit as many places as possible in the surrounding area, and with a resource area of over 500,000 acres spanning four counties , I always had a new place to discover. Some days I would just point to a spot on the map and head there to look for plants and seeds to collect, and other times I would ask around the office for suggestions of where to go next. I did have my favorite spots that I would revisit frequently, and it was fun to see them change through the season and to keep collecting new species there as the seasons changed. I also had a lot of freedom in the tasks I was performing at work. Although seed collection was my priority, I frequently went out in the field with range and noxious weeds staff in my office, and with US Forest Service and California Game & Fish crews as well. I also spent a lot of time at the National Wildlife Refuge just outside of town, where I learned about waterfowl monitoring, and was able to capture and band ducks and geese from an airboat at night. I met people from a wide variety of backgrounds, from seasonals like myself who were spending a summer in Modoc, to ranchers whose families had been living here for generations. I listened to people describe the ways they had gotten involved in conservation, and to others tell me about the difficulties they have with current policies and future plans. There are no simple answers, and I was reminded of this as I listened to people from all sides of the issues discuss their perspectives.
Next week I am on to a new chapter in my life. I will be working for a nonprofit land trust in Susanville, CA (about two hours south of where I am currently living) and I am really excited about experiencing the nonprofit approach to land management. I would not have this new position if not for the contacts that I have made through this job and I am sure that the skills and knowledge that I have gained will help me in the future. I will not be saying goodbye to this office for long, however, because I will be working closely with members of this office in my next job. And I’m sure that my new location will provide me access to many new places where I can continue my adventures…
Helping the noxious weeds crew...and making great use of my axe skills
A desert bear leaves its mark
The mornings feel like fall now. It’s harder to get up because the pitch black sky is telling me that I should still be asleep, and the chill in the air makes me want to curl up in my cozy bed. The days are still warm, however, and I’m taking advantage of all the available sunlight and warmth before winter sets in. Although many plants have been done seeding for a while, there are still many that are waiting for their moment. Yellow rabbitbrush turns entire valleys into golden seas and the flowers of the sagebrush discreetly beckon pollinators to help them reproduce. It has been great to be out in the field nearly every day, as I explore new areas and rediscover others, drive through amazing canyons with nearly sheer rock walls, all while looking for plants and collecting seed. I’ve also been able to continue working at the National Wildlife Refuge just out of town, and have helped Forest Service crews with monitoring. Getting to talk to these crews and to discuss differences in monitoring techniques, and to hear about their past experiences and amazing stories has reminded me why field biology is so appealing to me. I am not ready to settle in one spot yet, and seasonal jobs offer me the opportunity to discover parts of the country that I would otherwise never visit. I have been able to explore some amazing areas of California and Nevada that I would never have known existed, while hiking and collecting seeds as part of the job.
A rainbow after a desert storm collecting rabbitbrush seed with Liz in Nevada High Rock Canyon, NV
Seed collection continues to be at the forefront of my activities in Alturas, but I have been able to find time to go out and learn about other projects as well. During the past two weeks I have worked with a rare plant monitoring team from the US Forest Service, banded ducks and geese at the Modoc National Wildlife refuge, electroshocked fish with the California Dept. of Game and Fish, and worked with various people within my BLM office on their current projects. It has been very rewarding to continue pushing ahead with my project while getting to help out with others.
This past week I was able to go out with my mentor to an area that had burned last year and then been seeded after the fire. The fire had burned very hot, and only a few carcasses of junipers were left in much of the area. Driving toward the hillside where the seeding had taken place, we could see that it was dominated by patches of purple. As we drew closer, we could see that the patches were huge numbers of silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus var. heteranthus) in bloom. There was also a lot of goosefoot (Chenopodium spp.), Phacelia spp., and Basin wildrye (Leymus cinereus). We got out to take a closer look and could see neat rows of squirreltail (Elymus elymoides), and tiny Mountain big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata ssp. vaseyana). These were the species that had been planted to previous fall, and they seemed to be thriving after the long, wet spring. It was really exciting to see the sagebrush seedlings because no one was sure how well they would do from seed. Another interesting things we noticed was that the weeds did not seem to do as well in the seeded areas when compared to the non-seeded areas right next to them. Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium) and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) are major problems inthe area, especially following fire, but they did not seem to establish in the seeded areas. It was hard not to get too excited about these results because it had been such an unusually wet year and because two years after a planting is generally a better indicator of sagebrush seedling success, but it was still great to see that this seeding was showing positive results and that in this case, a post-fire treatment was making a difference in rangeland health.
Rows of squirreltail and sagebrush seedlings
Rows of seedlings planted last fall
On right: squirreltail and sagebrush seedlings. On left: scotch thistle and cheatgrass dominate
We arrived back in the office after a week in Chicago and a long holiday weekend only to find out that our mentor was being sent to a fire in New Mexico to help with the mitigation of post-fire effects. We had just had our Seeds of Success training at the Chicago Botanic Garden and were ready to get to work collecting seed, so we assured our mentor that we would find plenty to do in his absence. I was pleased that he would be working in my home state in the Jemez Mountains, where I had spent nearly every summer of my childhood escaping the heat of Albuquerque, but I was disappointed that we would not be able to go out in the field with him.
This past week on a seed scouting trip, we were able to experience the crazy weather that makes field work in the Western US so exciting and dangerous. We went to a site that our mentor had told us about that was fairly close to our field office in Alturas. Several people in our office warned us about the terrible road conditions where we were headed, so we allowed plenty of time to get there. It is good that we had been warned, because it took us nearly an hour to go the three miles to get to an old ranch house from the county road. We were constantly thrown around by the large rocks that made up the road, and when we stopped, it felt good to put my feet on solid ground. We parked and hiked past the ranch house, up a hill and into the forest. We looked for species to collect, and took herbarium voucher samples for those that were now flowering. It was a very pleasant hike through the trees and we walked along a small creek for much of the way. After lunch we headed back to the truck, collecting the seed of another species of grass along the way. We decided to drive a bit further to check out a spring that was just off the road.. While looking at the plants around the spring, it began to sprinkle. After a few minutes, it stopped raining and we assumed that it had passed over, but instead, it began to rain again. It started raining harder and harder, so we headed back to the truck (where of course we had left the windows down) to drive back to the office. Soon it was pouring rain and the road that had been hard-packed with big rocks to drive over became oozing mud with big rocks mixed in. We drove through pockets of hail that was so thick that we had to stop and wait for it to pass, and then back into the rain, which continued relentlessly. The thunder was deafening and seemed to make the truck shake even more on the bumpy roads. There were some close calls through some long sections of pure mud, but I was determined not to get stuck. After a very stressful hour and a half, we were back to the county road where it had not rained a drop. I stepped out of the truck to let my partner drive the rest of the way to the office, and could hardly straighten my back from being bent forward for so long. I stretched out my hands to release the tension that had built up from clenching the steering wheel like a lifeline, and plopped into the passenger’s seat, thoroughly exhausted. On the drive back, I found myself with a smile that would not go away. We had certainly had an adventure-filled day of seed collection! I was ready for another adventure the next day, but more than that, I was ready for a long night’s sleep in my bed.
We pulled out of the field station and headed west. As we drove, various peaks distinguished themselves. Mt Shasta looked menacing even from our distance, and Lassen’s snowy peak seemed to be begging me to come explore. We passed a sign that informed us that the small path through the grass was in fact the Pacific Crest Trail. Soon after that, we pulled onto a narrow dirt road which led us to a large meadow. Our tour guide, my boss Mike, informed us that this meadow was covered with a collection of shallow vernal pools which were just beginning to dry up after the wet winter months. We stopped when the road ended in a pool that had not yet dried up, and got out to take a closer look. What had appeared to be a field of grass was actually filled with tiny flowers. They were white, purple, yellow and pink and most were smaller than a pencil eraser.
Since the water blocked the road to our original destination, we turned around and got back on the highway. We drove for a couple of minutes and then turned onto a road with a primitive wooden sign that read “Cinder Cone Road.” We traveled through some Ponderosa pine, then some juniper, and then through another meadow. After the meadow, the scenery began to change. The road became rockier, and the plants became shrubbier and less colorful. We had entered an old lava bed. There were rocky outcroppings and flatter areas, all covered in plant life. I couldn’t believe how many plants were able to survive in such a demanding environment. We visited a large opening in the ground with smaller lava tube caves heading deeper underground, then hiked up a rocky hill to look at some flowers on a rare plants list. We drove along cliffs of crumbling rock and then entered a pine forest once again, before hitting the highway and heading back toward the office.
On the drive back, Mike explained why this was such an interesting place to work. The BLM Field Office in Alturas manages a wide variety of ecosystems from barren flat lands to sage-steppe habitat to pine-fir forests. We are located at the edge of the Great Basin to the East, and are bordered by the southern edge of the Cascade Range to the West. This means that plants from both ecosystems may be found growing right next to each other. Each day spent in the field showed me another type of terrain and plant life. It is comforting to know that I will not get bored of the surroundings of my new home, because if I am ready for a change, an entirely different ecosystem is never more than 20 miles away. I look forward to more exploration and I know that each day in the field will bring new discoveries and unique experiences.