Investigating the Fragility of the Chaparral

The magic of youth is not in the superficial, but in the unfettered expression of the authentic self. The beauty of age is the wisdom to rediscover the same, if the courage can be found to recognize and accept fallibility.

The difficulty many adults have with rediscovering their authentic selves partially explains why some cling to old, outdated paradigms. It also helps explain why change usually comes through the actions of the young.

So it should be no mystery why we gathered a handful of youthful explorers to help us collect the information we needed to put to rest, once and for all, the incorrect notion that chaparral can “burn several times in a dozen years” and recover just fine. Younger explorers are more willing to question, everything, including the investigator-in-chief. They also see things that older investigators have been staring at for years, but never noticed.

Holden Caulfield was on to something when he said (in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye), “People never notice anything.”

Our first field crew in April: Tyler, Adrian, and Lindsey.

Background: The Sweetwater River Canyon below the Alpine Overlook on Interstate Highway 8 in San Diego County provides a unique opportunity to measure how chaparral recovers from frequent fire. The area had been burned three times, the first in 1970, with one fire overlapping another. Some have claimed the chaparral burned in 2001 and 2003 is recovering without a problem. We descended into the canyon twice to collect biodiversity data to quantify what has actually been happening. For details about our first trip on April 29, please see our earlier post. For a full explanation about why this research project began, please see our original story, Denying the Threat of High Fire Frequency in the Chaparral.

The 2nd Expedition: During our second field collection trip on June 3, we found a quicker way down into the canyon that allowed us to avoid the steeper sections and several deep gullies. Still, the 82 degree heat, as compared to 66 degrees on our first trip in April, made the trip a bit more of a challenge.

The beauty of field work is the opportunity to discover wonderful things. In particular, we found a delicate bird’s foot fern (Pellaea mucronata) hidden in the recesses of a granitic boulder. Although the individual we saw had transformed into its brown, dormant stage, it exemplified the resilience plants must have in the face of long periods of drought typical for the chaparral plant community.

Bird’s foot fern (Pellaea mucronata).

Still in full glory were a number of California buckwheat shrubs (Eriogonum fasciculatum), a species that is common in the twice-burned (2001/2003) area in contrast to the chamise shrubs (Adenostoma fasciculatum) that dominate the 2001 burn area.

The delicate bloom of California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum).
Jack establishing the first transect starting point. The oak covered canyon below holds the Sweetwater River. Unlike during our trip in April, we were not refreshed by the gurgling sounds of water tumbling over rocks.

Like our first trip, we ran 3 transects each in the 2001 and the 2001/2003 burn areas. And as with our first trip, we noticed significant differences in cover between the sites. The 2001 area was quite dense, with chamise being the dominant shrub species. In the 2001/2003 burn area, some chamise was present, but the most common shrub appeared to be buckwheat, with a significant number of weed-filled bare areas in between.

Transect tape running over chamise in the 2001 burn area. Note the density of the chamise shrubs, the dominant species in the once-burned area. That’s Jack back there with the white hat.
The 2001/2003 burn area. Note the difference between this site and the 2001 burn area shown in the earlier photo. We found quite a few bare areas filled with non-native grasses (Bromus species). The most common shrub appeared to be buckwheat.

To collect our data, we ran 50 meter transect lines and recorded in centimeters what was directly under the line: plant species, rock, or bare dirt. At the beginning, middle and end of each line we also set up 1 meter square quadrants and recorded the approximate percent of cover by species. We also used a prehistoric GPS device to record the start and end of each transect line. An oldie, but goodie.

The prehistoric Garmin GPS unit we used to record the location of our transects.

We are in the process now of analyzing the data and plan on publishing our conclusions in a journal sometime next year. There’s going to be a lot of us on the author line.

After dragging our over-heated, tired bodies back up to the overlook parking lot, we ended up at the Alpine Brewery Pub for a rousing celebration of another successful adventure. On the way home, we were treated to a wonderful tour of Ryan’s native plant nursery. Several of us were lucky enough to obtain a few cuttings and seeds from Ryan to plant in our own native gardens.

The second field crew. L to R: Walker, Dylan, the Chaparral Institute’s Chief Spiritual Officer Copper (he stayed home where it was cooler), Rick, Robert, and Jack. We met Ryan on site.

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