Washouts and Wildfires

I decided to wait on a blog-worthy chain of events to share for my next post, and, on the day of the CLM reminder email, a field day like no other provided the perfect opportunity to share an experience with wildland fire, teamwork and communication.

After an amazing Tahoe 4th of July and Yosemite weekend with my family, I was ready to kick off the week with a multi-day fieldwork stint of seed scouting and collection.  Our mentor whipped out the topo maps and directed us on areas of interest to cover over the next two days.  We planned to scout a large swath of BLM land north of Reno in the Virginia Mountains for populations of Psuedoroegneria spicata, Leymus cinerus, Tetradymia glabrata, and Purshia tridentata, with an end goal of camping on the western shores of Pyramid Lake.  After reading about the current Red Flag Warning (conditions ideal for wildland fire combustion and rapid spread) in the region, my team and I ran a few concerns by our mentor.  Using a live updated ArcGIS Online map to review the current fires in the region, we agreed that the benefits of a scouting/collection trip into Long Valley outweighed the chance risk of running into an active fire.  This was the start to an exceptionally long day.

Current Fires in the CCDO Region

We reached Long Valley in the Virginia Mountains just east of Doyle, CA by mid-morning and called Minden Dispatch to inform them of our field plans and location.  In the hope of finding collectible populations, we searched flats, hillsides and swales for signs of our priority species. Unfortunately, most of the target populations we found were outside of the optimal collecting period.  We continued making notes and collecting baseline data on the status of the local populations as we made our way to the northwest corner of Pyramid Lake.  Pyramid Lake is a diamond in the rough, almost unbelievable at first sight.  The vast blue lake covers a surface area larger than Lake Tahoe and in the middle of a mixed Sagebrush-Salt Desert Shrub system! Fascinated by the pyramid-esque rock formations jutting out of the vibrant water, we proceeded south along the western shore of the lake until encountering road-closed highway blockers fencing off a washed out drainage line.  The unusually precipitous winter gouged out a large section of road and flow infrastructure across a stream leaving the only south-bound road impassable.  We decided to backtrack for cellular service to contact our mentor with an update.

Driving back north and west, slightly frustrated with the washout, one of my co-interns excitedly yells out “Super-Scooper!!” and points out over Pyramid Lake.  A medium sized aircraft lined up with the water surface and dipped down to fill its 1600 gallon holding tank with water, all without reducing speed or landing!   Three of these amphibious firefighting aircraft, recently deployed by regional fire offices, continued to make water runs right over our heads.  It took a second for the “WOW this is so cool” excitement to pass before we realized where they were heading.  After filling up on water the planes headed west over some nearby hills towards a new column of smoke, directly in line with the areas we surveyed earlier that morning.

Long Valley Fire from the North

We returned to the far edge of Long Valley, overlooking a full playa lake, to gape at the growing fire less than 10 miles away.  We scrambled to turn on our handheld radios as the updates came in from the local station flooded with activity.  We heard the road names Hacks Cross, Turtle Mountain and Fort Sage OHV Area, the exact route we used to enter from the 395 freeway.  Super Scooper after Super Scooper arrived to dump thousands of gallons onto the fire lines to prevent the fire from reaching Doyle.  With the nervous energy rising among the team, we called our mentor to inform him of the situation.  We pulled out our land cover maps to find an alternate safe route back to 395.  We called in to Minden Dispatch to update them on our position.  We contacted the fire lead for our field office, who thought our planned route out of the area safe and gave us the go ahead.  After an hour of phone tag, map routing, and fire gazing, we started on a long drive north out of Long Valley, around Honey Lake almost to Susanville, and back south on 395 to Carson City.

This day taught me about the risk of unanticipated circumstances creating potentially dangerous situations in the field.  The washout and wildfire provided us an opportunity to practice effective communication and teamwork under stress and adrenaline.  I learned that following safety protocol does make a difference in the field. However, moving forward, I’m keeping my eyes on the horizon.

Long Valley Fire Map

Connor Kotte

Carson City District Office – NV BLM

 

 

Sierras and Great Basin, III.

The Nevada BLM Carson City District Office CLM Intern Team discovers population of threatened species Ivesia webberi. An amazing find!

A mixed sagebrush-juniper community covers a large semi-remote area of rangeland only 30 minutes north of Reno, Nevada.  Much like most of the state, the area is managed primarily by the BLM with allotments of private land interspersed throughout the region.  As new opportunities arise, private land owners look to alternative ways to achieve a wide array of management goals.  This area in particular has been slotted for land use change pertaining to the large population of Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) and potential Sage Grouse habitat.

Sagebrush Steppe, Dry Valley, Washoe County, NV

Before significant change on BLM land can happen, a variety of environmental assessments and rare species surveys must be completed to evaluate the impact of the specific project.  This is where our responsibilities for botanical surveys come into play.  Webber’s Ivesia (Ivesia webberi) is an ESA Threatened species, BLM Special Status species, and a Critically Endangered species in the State of Nevada.  The area of interest was designated as potential habitat for Ivesia webberi by our mentor and other BLM Staff.  Our team was tasked with navigating polygons of likely Ivesia habitat and conducting surveys for the rare species across hundreds of acres.  We spent the better part of the work week performing surveys for Ivesia webberi throughout the region while camping in the field.  On the last polygon of the last hour on the last day of our surveys, a fellow intern called the group over as we walked our lines.  “I’ve got it!”  Nestled in a dry ephemeral drainage line, free of Bromus tectorum and other competitors, thrives a newly recorded population of Ivesia webberi!  We recorded the GPS information, created Polygon and Line features, and pin flagged the area for a future return trip.  The discovery of this satellite population is the first in the area and a land management determination is currently in the works.  We are scheduled to return next week for further surveys!

Webber’s Ivesia (Ivesia webberi)

Lake Tahoe calls on the weekends.  In the past few weeks, we have explored Emerald Bay, Eagle Lake at the trailheads of Desolation Wilderness, and Marlette Lake high on the slopes of Tahoe’s eastern border.  Whether we are botanizing, birding, skiing, backpacking, swimming or biking, the seemingly endless activities draw us back over the Sierras to our weekend getaway every time.

Lake Tahoe from Marlette Lake

Eagle Lake, Desolation Wilderness

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe

Sierras and Great Basin, II.

While Sierra precipitation continues to blanket mountain ranges in snow and swell Carson City with rain into April, bouts of nice weather provide us the opportunity to conduct habitat and species surveys in remote field sites.  Since my last post, my team and I have searched for a rare cactus species on proposed mining sites, collected data for a Short-Eared Owl population study, pressed plant specimens from the field, and cataloged species associations of the coniferous forests in eastern California.

Our mentor, Dean Tonenna, received Mining Notices for operations on BLM lands at nine locations near the Singatse Mountain Range and Mason Valley in Lyon County, NV.  We were tasked with surveying the mining sites for a rare cactus on the BLM Sensitive Species List. We encountered one occurrence of the species, Sagebrush Cholla (Grusonia pulchella), on our last proposed drill site to survey.  We recorded the GPS coordinate of the cactus and mapped the location with the proposed mining sites on ArcGIS.  Dean included the finding in his report and made specific recommendations for site modification.

Mason Valley, Singatse Range, Lyon County, NV.

Our next adventure required finding a remote study plot within Dixie Valley nestled between the Stillwater and Clan Alpine Ranges in Churchill County, NV.  We collected occurrence data along transects as a part of the Western Asio Flammeus (Short-Eared Owl) Landscape Study with the Intermountain Bird Observatory.  We observed Northern Harrier, Horned Lark, Killdeer, Common Raven, and Red-Tailed Hawk.  Unfortunately, we did not record a single occurrence of Asio flammeus over the eleven transects.  We camped within the study plot following the survey and prepared to collect plant specimen vouchers for the area in the morning.  After a brilliant sunrise, our mentor walked us through the dominant species of the Salt Desert Shrub plant community and species specific to Dixie Valley.  We pressed a variety of species, a few of which included Phacelia crenulata, Astragulus iodanthus and Lepidium flavum.

Sunrise over the Clan Alpine Range, Dixie Valley, Churchill County, NV

This week my intern team took the opportunity to attend a Cooperative Weed Management Area meeting in Quincy, CA for the Plumas area of the western Sierras.  The meeting included many stakeholders, scientists, and herbicide applicators for updates on noxious weed projects during the 2017 field season.  Following the meeting, our mentor had us pull off the highway onto an old logging road up into a Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) and Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) forest.  Similar to the Dixie Valley plant community survey, we rapidly assessed the dominant vegetation and learned about the differences between the western and eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada ranges.  Hiking up and down fresh mountain streams, we encountered a variety of early-blooming wildflowers.  The fresh rain and scents of the Pines, Firs, and Cedars reaffirmed my love for temperate conifer forests.

Temperate Conifer Forest of the Western Sierras

On the weekends, we fill our time with exploring new hiking trails, skiing at Lake Tahoe and playing soccer.  Ash Canyon and Clear Creek Trail are just 10 minutes from our house in Carson City and offer miles of maintained trails into the canyons of the eastern Sierras.  When it is snowing or raining (like yesterday), we plan out future backpacking trips and prepare for fieldwork during the next week.  We have plans for Monday to visit the Pine Nut Mountains to survey for noxious weeds and other invasive plant species. Can’t wait!

Clear Creek Trail

Carson City District Office – BLM

Connor Kotte

Sierras and Great Basin

An expanse of open land, unimpeded in its darkness, spread out before me in all directions.

Although I missed out on a cross-country road trip, my midnight flight from O’Hare to Reno Tahoe Int’l. provided perspective to the scope and scale of the landscape I was entering.  Where ~80% of the state is public land, I felt incredibly excited to be embarking on a 9-month adventure with the BLM in Carson City, Nevada.

Before I knew it, I was settling into our shared housing, familiarizing myself with the area, and fast becoming friends with my awesome intern team.

View from our backyard, looking west, Carson Range

My first two weeks were filled with training, herbarium work, conservation plans, and preparations for the field season.  We completed a variety of training sessions including a lengthy ArcGIS marathon.  I learned about the local herbarium system and helped mount plant specimens from past years.  We started developing official conservation plan documents for sensitive Nevada plants and prepared for our five-day herbicide applicator course in Boise, ID at the end of the month.

Desk station, GIS training, accompanied by Intermountain Flora and apple

Just today we were able to get out in the field and complete a few tasks thanks to the warm dry weather.  We collected sections of Willow (Salix sp.) saplings and buried them in moist soil packets underground to elicit growth of new root systems.  We also used spades to remove invasive Thistles (Cirsium spp.) throughout the study plot area.

Field site, East of Carson City

Elsewhere, we are able to take advantage of the amazing outdoor recreation opportunities that Western Nevada has to provide! My first day in NV wasn’t complete until we hit the Reno Climbing Gym. I shredded my fingers.  Endless mountain bike and running trails are found within a mile of our house.  Last weekend we visited a place twenty minutes from Carson City that received 30 feet of snow this winter – Lake Tahoe. We explored the lakeside towns, hiked a beautiful ridge overlook, and have plans to go back tomorrow for skiing!

Running trails, Carson City

Example of Tahoe Snow

Eagle Rock overlook, West Lake Tahoe

As soon as the rain and snowfall from the region’s record-breaking winter allow, we’ll be exploring the Sierra Nevadas and Great Basin Desert further to work towards the goals of the BLM CCDO Botany Dept., Seeds of Success Program, and CLM Internship.

Carson City District Office – BLM

Connor Kotte