After eight days of I-40, racing wild horses along side the highway, exploring the Southwest, and being decidedly far from my Appalachian mountain town, I finally made it to the high desert town of Burns, Oregon. Here, I have started my five month term as a riparian intern with the Bureau of Land Management.
While some of my first week has been arduous computer trainings, system enrollments, and rental agreements, there has been plenty of time spent soaking up the natural surroundings offered by BLM wilderness areas and Malheur forests. Our first field assignment took us to hills facing the marvelous snow-capped Steens mountain range, flanked by flooded ranches and flatlands supporting populations of countless bird species, wild burros, antelope, and elk. My fellow CLM intern, Rachel Wood, our mentor, Jarod, and BLM rangeland manager Lisa started our day at 7am to begin on-the-ground demarcation of Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) stands for removal on local public lands. The tree’s post-settlement (new growth) stands have outcompeted some portions of sagebrush habitats, most notably of the sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). Much of BLM’s management in the area comes back to protection of this indicator species, as its health reflects the overall ecological health of sagebrush landscapes.
But what does riparian ecology have to do with this? In the desert of all places?
Simply put, removing these junipers frees up various resources, allows for greater storage of water, and production of valuable meadow and riparian habitats for plant species and wildlife forage. This is only one element of riparian health, as well as overall ecological management in the area affected by high density Juniper stands.
My education on the very wet and green east coast mountain ranges will definitely be tested in my new high desert home! As Jarod has explained to me, a difference of 4 inches of rainfall could have serious implications for fire season, vegetation, and wildlife populations. Snow melt from the winter and early spring months provides a large proportion of water used for plants to green out this time in the season. The summer months will invite fire crews, drought season, and temperatures much hotter than the current 50 degree highs. Lips dry, and hands reaching for bight pink tape, we continued walking along the border and flagging the perimeter of one of five 4-mile Juniper stands. In the distance, the Steens mountains reflect bright white caps; the contrast and variation of East Oregon is unlike any location I have had the opportunity to study. As our day winds down, we round the final finger of land mapped to be visited today. The area we mark will be cut by next October, if all funding and fieldwork goes accordingly. After Junipers are cut, it is expected that native shrubs and forbs will return in higher volumes.
Our field team rejoins to talk news drama and pet our canine field assistant, Dee. Our long day of work has started my journey of understanding this landscape, and enjoying its beauty!