Eyes and ears in the wild

Volunteer eco-stewards keep watch over remote botanical areas, assess possible threats
Doug and Tabitha Viner enjoy the view at the Observation Peak Botanical Area, where they serve as volunteer observers. Mount Ashland can be seen in the distance at right.Courtesy of Doug Viner

It takes Doug and Tabitha Viner about an hour and 45 minutes to drive from Ashland to the Dutchman Peak botanical area high on the Siskiyou Crest.

The Viners have a special, protective interest in this spot, about midway between Mount Ashland and Applegate Lake, and in a second area at Observation Peak, a mile or so farther down Forest Road 20.

They are here as volunteers in the "Adopt A Botanical Area" program initiated two years ago by the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. Volunteers such as the Viners keep an eye on 120 areas designated as Botanical Areas by the U.S. Forest Service and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

They function as eyes and ears in these remote areas, with the goal of protecting special natural resources from human activities such as illegal mining and off-road-vehicle use.

The Viners' July visit, at the peak of the wildflower season, was "just jaw-dropping," says Doug, a mechanical engineer in the wind-turbine industry, "an amazing variety of color." The Viners moved to Ashland three years ago from Maryland. "The biodiversity out here is significantly greater," says Doug.

Tabitha, a pathologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, says she really appreciates the "excuse to get out and go into nature" for the spectacular high-elevation show.

"At the moment, things are more or less OK in those two botanical areas," says Wayne Rolle, botanist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. He is assessing possible threats on Dutchman and Observation peaks, and considering an historical problem there of erosion from over-grazing. Rolle was instrumental in originally establishing the botanical areas for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

"There's a number of rare plants in these areas," says Rolle. They include the tiny, pinkish Henderson's horkelia, which likes the granitic soils of Dutchman Peak, and the split-hair paintbrush, a 3- to 6-inch, hairy, purple perennial.

On Observation Peak there are "high-elevation serpentine endemics," such as the unique lemon sword fern, says Rolle, as well as a lot of "not very showy but significant botanical species."

The Adopt A Botanical Area program covers more than 95,000 acres, says KS Wild Associate Director Lisa Force. "They're all extraordinary in some way. They're all different."

Sixty-seven volunteers are watching over these unique plant communities scattered from Roseburg to Redding, involving parts of four national forests and four BLM districts.

"If it seems unusual to (volunteers), we don't ask them to try and decide whether it's illegal or if it's a problem," says Force. Adopters are asked only to observe, keep going back over time and report what they find.

Force and other staff investigate reported problems and take them up with appropriate government agencies, if warranted.

Last spring, ORV ruts were discovered in green, flowering meadows at Hinkle Lake and Eight Dollar Mountain, two of the botanical areas, Force says.

She says volunteers have reported "things we didn't even imagine were going on out there," including one instance of a private property owner blocking access to adjacent public lands.

Greg Walter volunteered to adopt the French Flat area about four miles south of Cave Junction 18 months ago. He was concerned about illegal ORV use and dumping that has plagued this Area of Critical Environmental Concern administered by the BLM.

French Flat is designated critical habitat for Cook's lomatium, a rare and federally listed endangered plant in the carrot family. It grows there in the wet meadows, along with some other rare plants, according to Bryan Wender, botanist for the BLM's Medford District.

Walter, an outdoors enthusiast and 12-year resident of Cave Junction, says French Flat is "a special place because it's so close to town," accessible for a nature outing without having to plan a trip. But it's that same accessibility that leads to problems such as ORV damage and dumping.

Walter organized locals in a big Earth Day cleanup of the area in 2012, hauling out an estimated 21 tons of garbage, including several cars and trucks.

He hopes the improved appearance and increased use of the 656-acre area by hikers and nature lovers will discourage further ORV abuse in the area.

For some of the BLM areas, "off-road vehicle impacts are the primary threat," says Wender.

The sheer magnitude of some threats facing natural areas — invasive species and climate change in particular — are beyond the ability of any one agency, he says.

Budget and staffing issues also make it tough for BLM and the Forest Service keep up with threats to botanical areas.

The two botanists say they appreciate the KS Wild volunteer program.

"It's an opportunity to have watchdogs out there, people who can keep an eye on things," Rolle says.

"I do think it's helpful," Wender adds. "We appreciate having an extra set of eyes on these areas."

The Adopt a Botanical Area website has links to an interactive map of the 120 botanical areas at http://kswild.org/get-involved/adopt-a-botanical-area-program.

David Chuse is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at dgchuse@gmail.com.



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