Big Bear has tiny plants

Big Bear Lake is a place of escape for many Southern Californians. Folks come out in droves to leave the smoggy summers of their respective concrete jungles, or to opt out of their non-winters to get some snow time in. And I don’t blame them, because it is absolutely beautiful there and everybody deserves to experience the great outdoors. As for myself, I had never spent any time at Big Bear Lake until I was given the opportunity to spend the last week of August shadowing Marta Lefevre-Levy, the regional botany technician of San Bernardino National Forest in the Mountaintop Ranger Station in Fawnskin, CA. The week turned out to be a great opportunity for exploring, learning, networking, and of course, botanizing.


A view of the lake from Juniper Point


My work for the week consisted of establishing and surveying 10x10m and 1m diameter-circular plots in critical habitat areas within the 2017 Holcomb fire area. The critical habitat areas are known as the pebble plains and the carbonate hills, which host a number of threatened and endangered plants that are tiny and adorable. The pebble plains are a relict habitat left over from melted glacial deposits that have remained in place for tens of thousands of years. Apparently the pebble plain has such small plants for a number of reasons. One reason being that there are so many pebbles in the soil column that churn about over time that it is a very hostile environment for a plant’s roots. Thus, the smaller plants have evolved deep, strong taproots or many fibrous roots that minimize pebble movement around the plants. Another reason is that there is not much available water for the plants to grow, and being small is growth strategy for plants to persist in extreme conditions. Though they may be small, you can’t let the buckwheats fool you; some of them range from 500-1200 years in age.


Eriogonum kennedyi var. austromontanum


The Holcomb fire mostly impacted the pinyon-juniper woodlands adjacent to the critical habitat areas, however, during the fire there was a misapplication of aerial fire retardant in  the pebble plains and carbonate hills. They are considered “designated avoidance areas as discussed in the 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Nation-wide Use of Aerial Application of Fire Retardants on National Forest System Lands” (USFS, 2011). The release of fire retardant in the pebble plains and carbonate hills triggered the establishment of monitoring plots to be surveyed for the next three years because aerial fire retardant has high phosphorous and nitrogen content in its makeup. Nitrogen and Phosphorous are two of the three plant macronutrients, so naturally there is some concern with the fire retardant stimulating the growth of non-native and invasive species.


Tiny Gilia sp. found in the pebble plains


The standard protocol for conducting the monitoring surveys involves the establishment of 10×10 meter paired plots. We established 9 paired-plots (18 total) to compare parts of the critical habitats that did and did not receive inputs of aerial fire retardant. 6 of the paired plots were within the pebble plains, and 3 were in the carbonate hills. Within each plot, we measured percent canopy cover by species within a circular 1-meter quadrat placed 5 meters from the southwest corner of the plot. We took photos in each cardinal direction, and created a species list of all plants present within 10 x 10m  boundary. The listed plants in the critical habitat area include southern mountain buckwheat (Eriogonum kennedyi var. austromontanum), silvery mousetail (Ivesia argyrocoma var. argyrocoma), Bear Valley sandwort (Eremogone ursina), ash-gray paintbrush (Castilleja cinerea), Cushenbury buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium var. vineum) and the below featured Cushenbury oxytheca (Acanthoscyphus parishii var. goodmaniana).


Acanthoscyphus parishii var. goodmaniana


I spent most of my free time at Big Bear Lake hanging out with Sophie Heston (my fellow intern at Chuchupate), Andre Jackson (Restoration and Phytophthora intern at Big Bear Lake) and Veronica Avalos (Restoration and Phytophthora intern at Big Bear Lake). Though I only spent a week in their barracks, I could tell Andre and Veronica had become great friends through working and living together throughout the summer. They drove me around the lake and showed me where they liked to hang out, we played a couple rounds of uno, and talked story for hours. I really admired them and the time we spent together. They are bright, sensitive, beautiful, hilarious human beings! I’m hoping that our paths cross again in the near future.


Fellow interns and friends, Sophie and Andre

Also, big shouts out and thanks to Marta Lefevre-Levy for making this week happening! It was great working with her and I learned a lot about the Big Bear area, its plants and career opportunities because of her. I wish her luck in her future endeavors!

Signing off,

Eli Grinberg

US Forest Service

Los Padres National Forest – Mt. Pinos Ranger District

Chuchupate Ranger Station

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