Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pinacate Biosphere Reserve

Nature is more than the sum of its parts -- it possesses a magic unifying principle, spark of life, existence beyond and apart and aloof from the simplifying, pattern-making mind of man.

This was a landscape alive: humming, buzzing, chirping, ...
What Mexico looked like before fast food, trash, and grazing: undisturbed, incredibly luscious and beautiful.

Lava flows jumbled like bulk food; angular irregular boulders of roungly similar size tumble down toward Big Rock Wash, where a curious all-green tree called Palo Verde grows alongside the Elephant Tree (green under crinkling off gold paper) and the Ironwood Tree alive, verdanmt buzzing blooming profusion: "a vibratory place". WIthout illusion or pretense - yet still hard to see -- perhaps things are the wrong size, strange shapes in complicated, yet ordered landscapes. Only a few species of grass. WIldflowers everywhere - if you look. (I had to crunch a patch to lie down and write this).

At the (dry) stream banks (marked by whitened rocks) grow bush-nightshade and desert lavender, not holding back rock erosion, intermixed. At intervals crazy flowers bloom: hibiscus... High scree slope of creosote, burro bush , brittlebrush, jr. elephant trees, ocotillo. The rocks are dry, brittle: some pummice. B.O. Flower. Mallow. Stickleaf Mentzelia. Dahlia.

Soil (between jammed gravel jammed between boulders) is tan and almost entirely clay plus a few sub-sandgrain particles. THe parent rock is basalt w/ quartz crystals scattered in. Black rock remains hot to the touch after the shadow has replaced sun. Probably dehydrated, discombobulated, waiting in the shadows, feeling the ever-moving air breeze cool my skin. A vulture circled me, left, came back. When the wind leaves, the buzzing rises, busy coevolution.

Map of Tinajas (water holes) in the Sierra Pinacate, prepared by Julian Hayden, archeologist.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Project Budburst

Today is the first day of Project Budburst for 2008. If you have native
plants growing in your yard or anywhere close enough to your daily
rounds that you can observe them every day, you might want to register
with the project and record your phenological observations along with
other "citizen scientists" across the country. The idea is to gather
quantities of data about budburst/first leaf and first flower for
certain targeted species (listed on the site
This data is being collected in order to track the effects of climate
Check out the website for more information and to register sites and
plants you would like to monitor.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A New Conception of My Home-Watershed: the Gila River Basin

It took me three years of living and traveling extensively around Tucson to understand the local watershed. I grasped early on the basin and range topography of parallel North-South mountain ranges, but these ridges served to confuse rather than clarify the overall drainage, since I did not know how the meandering rivers and dry washes of the bottomlands connected. Some went north, others flowed south. Where was the continental divide? Where did they meet the sea?

It was only by fortuitous circumstance that the last year found me exploring the full scope of an area I finally recognized as my home watershed. I new conception of the Gila River Basin emerged from these vast peregrinations, a new understanding of the lay of the land and a meshing of medium and large scale aspects:

The Sonoran desert in Arizona exists in the Gila Basin, surrounded on three sides (north, east, and south) by concentric rings of grassland valleys and mesas, woodland hills and forested mountains. The Gila, which rises on the continental divide to the east (in NM), is joined by tributaries from the north and south, representing, respectively, the Mogollon Rim divide and another divide which roughly approximates the U.S./Mexico border.

This general schema is interrupted, of course, by the basic and range, which further divides ecotones and watersheds, creating a kind of comb effect wherein numerous drainages flow parallel before their confluence with the Gila. The Gila itself is also indistinct, since it virtually disappears in an amorphous wash in the middle of its basin. And, since it flows through sparsely inhabited parts of the countryside, it is even easier to ignore its central role in ordering the landform. Most people living in the large metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson do not realize their place along the cusp of the Sonoran lowlands, or the importance of the placements of their cities at the ecotone divide between grassland and desert, where rivers [used to ] bring water from the mountains before evaporating in the desert. [Theoretically,] the Gila eventually flows into the Colorado, before that crosses the U.S. Mexico border, reaches its estuary, and flows into the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). The Colorado rises from the western rocky mountains and the high colorado plateau to the north of the gila basin. To the south, in Mexico, streams flow directly off the Sierra Madre into the Sea of Cortez, without joining together in a large basin such as the Gila. To the east, on the other side of the continental divide, are the Chihuahan desert and the Rio Grand. These areas combined form the Southwest, and a large part of three out of four of the N. American deserts.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Predator "Control"; An Ecologist's Perspective

Whether or not you agree that aerial hunting of wolves could be justified in order to increase game populations, the problem remains that there is no scientific basis linking decreased predator population with increased game population. It is an old debate in ecology: whether population is regulated "top down"(by predators), "bottom up" (by net primary productivity) or intrinsically(e.g social limitations on territory). And it is important to point out that the differential equations modeling population do not respond to the simple logic of arithmetic, ie subtracting predators = adding prey. For example, it could be (and studies, in Alaska have shown) that wolves prey primarily on the sick and weak and do not affect carrying capacity. In fact, they might as well increase prey population as decrease it (e.g. by selecting for stronger individuals or culling diseased individuals).

Scientifically speaking, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's euphemistically named “Wildlife Services” has about as much scientific basis as a modern day witch hunt, or a plan to limit vampires by destroying bats. It is based instead on fear, prejudice, and ignorance. Wildlife Services is a rogue government agency killing and poisoning native animals in complete disregard of any scientific management purpose. [See an in-depth assessment of the agency done by Wild Earth Guaridans.]

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Gallinas Peak, or, on the Topographic Asymetry of Mountains

Topographic Signature of life, or ice:

Which is steeper: North Face (ice shaped) vs, South Face (life shaped)?

"Without life, there would still be asymmetric mountains. Rainfall patterns affect the height, width and symmetry of mountains.

Landscapes are shaped by the uplift, deformation and breakdown of bedrock and the erosion, transport and deposition of sediment. Life is important in all of these processes. Over short timescales, the impact of life is quite apparent: rock weathering, soil formation and erosion, slope stability and river dynamics are directly influenced by biotic processes that mediate chemical reactions, dilate soil, disrupt the ground surface and add strength with a weave of roots. Over geologic time, biotic effects are less obvious but equally important: biota affect climate, and climatic conditions dictate the mechanisms and rates of erosion that control topographic evolution. Apart from the obvious influence of humans, does the resulting landscape bear an unmistakable stamp of life? The influence of life on topography is a topic that has remained largely unexplored. Erosion laws that explicitly include biotic effects are needed to explore how intrinsically small-scale biotic processes can influence the form of entire landscapes, and to determine whether these processes create a distinctive topography."

"Precipitation is a fundamental driver of erosional processes and exerts a strong control on ecosystem distributions, suggesting that these precipitation patterns may be important in understanding mountain geomorphology."

Notes: Ponderosa and alligator juniper and pinon, but where are the shrubs, the Ceanothus, the mountain mahogany, the apache plume, the Ribes, not to mention all the riparian sumac, grape, hibiscus, false indigo, etc?

the north facing slopes are steeper and rockier, the south facing have a rock-flour consistency, less vegetated, less lichen on rocks...indicating more erosion, less life

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Proposal to the Nature Conservancy, San Pedro River Preserve, AZ

I owe the San Pedro river a special debt of gratitude and would enjoy taking responsibility for its protection. I have also been impressed by the scope and professionalism of The Nature Conservancy, and surely your work on the San Pedro should count among its most important.

As you know, the future of your preserves on the San Pedro is far from certain. Congratulations on diverting AZDOT's attention from the San Pedro valley: that kind of preemptive vigilance will have to be sustained and expanded to other threats such as climate change. Continued aquifer drawdown will decrease perennial flow and in turn decrease biotic integrity by weakening native riparian forest growth and establishment, while boosting nonnative invasives. Flooding from increasingly impermeable rangeland and urban sprawl could change hydrology, bringing 100-year floods every decade.

With preparations today, many of these challenges can be anticipated and mitigated. Ecological integrity assessments can be developed and used to plan and measure the performance of restoration work. Neither assessment nor restoration efforts should be limited to TNC's preserves; it takes a whole watershed to raise a river, and non-point interventions are a key part of any restoration strategy. Whether working to secure water rights or educate and motivate water conservation in Sierra Vista, TNC cannot manage its San Pedro preserves without engaging diverse local stakeholders.

I am inspired by a desire to find creative solutions to problems that society is just beginning to acknowledge, but which TNC's San Pedro Preserves immediately face. The San Pedro river, especially in contrast to the Santa Cruz river, served as my ecological "wake-up call," and, in 2007, I decided to leave my position as lab manager for Dr. Hildebrand's neuro-ecology lab at the University of Arizona to pursue a career that combines science with conservation. Since then I have worked on wetlands ecology and restoration projects in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. My restoration philosophy is inspired by principles I learned at DAWN/SW's Permaculture Design Course, by association with Brad Lancaster and his Rainwater Harvesting ideas, and by working closely on several restoration projects with Bill Zeedyk.

I am familiar with Natural Heritage methodology after working to develop an Ecological Integrity Assessment with Colorado Natural Heritage Program. I am on the Advisory Committee for NMNHP's EIA development, and would like to see AZ begin to take advantage of this EPA funding source. Since Arizona's Heritage Program isn't funded to take on work like this, perhaps TNC could step in. Just as TNC developed the Heritage Programs before spinning them off to state agencies, TNC AZ could develop an EPA-funded EIA program until the state can take it on. I argued in my final report to CNHP that EIAs, to address the kind of mitigation EPA is interested in, should be geared toward restoration objectives; another benefit of developing these metrics in-house would be increased specificity to San Pedro Preserve restoration and conservation needs.

My on-the-ground experience with restoration, as practiced in the SW, informs my appraisal of EIAs, and ecology and conservation biology in general. Restoration is also built into Heritage methodology where, in the scaling A-B-C-D, the line between C and D is crossed when an element occurrence is "no longer restorable". I believe that putting numbers on B and C occurences based on the monetary cost and time required to restore them to A will help managers more efficiently prioritize conservation and restoration work. A-occurences could be informed by the work of Dr. Betancourt at UA and Dr. Van Devender at the Sonoran desert museum, among others, whose paleoecology is helping redefine natural ranges of variation. Historic research, such as that by Diana Hadley, Arizona State Museum, is also invaluable. A better understanding of both historic and prehistoric ranges of variation can guide restoration work to dampen stressors and strengthen natural integrity.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


When the throaty calls of sandhill cranes
echo across the valley, when the rimrock flares
incandescent red, and the junipers
are flames of green on the shortgrass hills,

in that moment of last clear light
when the world seems ready to speak its name,
meet me in the field alongside the pond.
Without careers for once, without things to do,

without dreams or anger or the rattle of fears,
we'll ask how it can be that we walk this ground
and know that we walk, alive in a world
that didn't have to be beautiful, alive

in a world that doesn't have to be.
With no answers, just ourselves and silence,
we'll listen for the song that waits to be learned,
the song that moves through the passing light.

-John Daniel

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Climbing Ladron Peak

(via the West Face)
Sheer-sided Ladron Peak dominates the horizon in this part of NM, its precipitiously steep range beckoning over wide basins. From Magdalena, we took road 354 to Riley and forded the Rio Salado. 354 continues through a perplexing terrain of dissected drainages and landcover that includes patches of Pinon and Juniper, Cholla, and Creosote. We followed roads from the west through the Ladrones Wilderness Study Area until we couldn't drive any further, followed the old road-come-trail up through pinon. Reed found a Pinus edulis x cembroides (Pinon/Mexican Pinon) hybrid, but although we looked we couldn't find any more that had both 2 and 3 needle bundles. We passed an old stone cabin with a large packrat nest inside; outside it was wreathed in a forest of cholla, perhaps spread/cultivated by the rats. The trail continued up the wash and a Habitat Stamp project had excavated springs and connected tubing to pump the water to a number of tanks.

Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) grows as a dwarf shrub groundcover on the summit, along with beehive cactus (Echinocereus coccineus?). It looks like the annual wildflowers up here must be amazing.

Ice and snow in the north-facing shadows. Large rainforest-esque lichens.

Mt. Taylor, snowcovered, in the distance.
Habitat Stamp water tank. Rushes grow in the overflow.
A fire had burned up from the West nearly all the way to the summit, although only in patches. Because the slopes are so steep the vegetation was never continuous and it seems the fire must have spread stochastically via burning embers wafted in the conflagration's convection flume.

Many old (200-400 year old) Ponderosa Pine, Gambel Oak, and Alligator Juniper were killed. Many burned trees still had leaves or needles, indicating the fire was probably only two years old (1-2 years' new growth sprouted from the base of burned oaks).
The erosion was considerable in places, although Bear Grass (nolina) survived with scars, and new growth of Ragweed Sagebrush (Artemisia franseroides) blankets the ground where soil erosion was not as severe.
400+ year old alligator juniper spared by the fire.