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MailTribune.com
  • Conifer Country

    Self-described tree geek writes field guide on 350 million-year-old cone-bearing species
  • ASHLAND — Near the top of Mount Ashland stands a little piece of heaven most likely created by a nutcracker with a hint of memory loss.
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    • If you go
      Plant explorer Michael Kauffmann, author of "Conifer Country" and "Conifers of the Pacific Slope," will be in Ashland next week to talk about conifers of Southern Oregon.
      He will present a free...
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      If you go
      Plant explorer Michael Kauffmann, author of "Conifer Country" and "Conifers of the Pacific Slope," will be in Ashland next week to talk about conifers of Southern Oregon.

      He will present a free slide show and sign books at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, at the Geos Institute, 84 Fourth St., Ashland.

      On Saturday, Nov. 9, he will lead a hike along a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail to view various conifers and discuss the biodiversity of the region.

      The hike costs $20. Sign up at Northwest Nature Shop, 154 Oak St., Ashland, or call 541-482-3241. Kauffmann's visit is sponsored by the Pacific Crest Trail Association and Northwest Nature Shop.

      Kauffmann's books are available at Northwest Nature Shop and Bloomsbury Books in Ashland.

      — Mark Freeman
  • ASHLAND — Near the top of Mount Ashland stands a little piece of heaven most likely created by a nutcracker with a hint of memory loss.
    A small collection of whitebark pines rise their gnarled selves out of the harsh ground like they do at Crater Lake National Park, yet it's one of just a handful of stands in Jackson and Josephine counties.
    Whitebark pines can't disperse their seeds like other conifers, so they rely on birds such as the Clark's nutcracker that cache vast numbers of their seeds for winter feeding, while sometimes forgetting where they hid some of them.
    How these whitebark pines made it to Mount Ashland is anybody's guess.
    "Probably a nutcracker went up Mount Ashland and cached those seeds," says Michael Kauffmann, a plant explorer and connoisseur of conifers. "Maybe they'll make it. Maybe they won't."
    But they made it into Kauffmann's new field guide of cone-bearing trees such as firs and pines that make up the mega-flora of Southern Oregon.
    The field guide, "Conifers of the Pacific Slope," identifies all 65 species of conifers known to inhabit the West, including that little patch of whitebark pines on Mount Ashland.
    "It's a way to connect with and see cool places, see them through the eyes of one of the oldest plant lineages on the planet," Kauffmann says.
    "Conifers have been around for 350 million years, so I think they have quite a story to tell."
    Kauffmann will be in Ashland next week to talk about conifers, first during a Friday slide show and then Saturday on a guided hike along a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.
    Kauffmann's first book, called "Conifer Country," detailed the 35 species of cone-bearing trees in the Klamath Mountains of Northern California and Southern Oregon.
    His latest book expands on that effort, highlighting the 65 conifer species found in the West from Mexico to Canada. It contains descriptions, photographs and range maps that offer glimpses of the trees and the habitats that support them.
    The range map of the Sitka spruce, for instance, shows it hugs the Northern California coastline until it expands inland just north of Ashland.
    "I feel a big part of the story is the range maps," says Kauffmann, 39, of Humboldt County, Calif. "You can read the ecology of the landscape if you look at the conifers. It's a pretty cool story."
    The new 142-page field guide is published by Backcountry Press and is available locally at Bloomsbury Books and Northwest Nature Shop, both in Ashland.
    Roughly 20,000 species of conifers once inhabited the Earth, and the Klamath Mountains are home to 5 percent of the 600 species that remain, Kauffmann says. Those trees were highlighted in Kauffmann's first book. The second expands that to about 10 percent of the world's species.
    While conifers make up fewer than 1 percent of the tree species in the world, they account for 30 percent of the forested lands on the planet, Kauffmann says.
    The most common is the Douglas fir, whose scientific name Pseudotsuga menziesii pays homage to Archibald Menzies, who discovered it on Vancouver Island during the 1790s during a voyage along the Pacific Northwest by Captain George Vancouver. Its common name commemorates David Douglas, who collected seeds along the lower Columbia River in 1824 and sent them to England.
    Look at most peaks in eastern Jackson County and you'll see stands of Douglas fir, which are actually expanding their range into mid-elevation territory once dominated by oak, Kauffmann says.
    "It's the first tree I recommend people know because it grows everywhere in the West," Kauffmann says.
    Among the least common conifers are Baker's cypress, with fewer than 30 known stands in Northern California and Southern Oregon, Kauffmann says. That includes a 2-acre stand on Flounce Rock off Cascade Gorge Road northeast of Lost Creek Lake.
    Perhaps the toughest conifers to identify are the many subspecies of pines, which are the most diverse of the conifers, Kauffmann says. For instance, just looking at the needle lengths can be deceiving, because trees on sunny slopes often have shorter needles than pines of the same species growing on shady slopes, he says.
    "In a way, that's why I did the book," he says. "They're all somewhat difficult to identify."
    Kauffmann began thinking of himself as something of a conifer geek at age 13, when a family trip to California from his native Virginia included a stop at Muir Woods National Monument north of San Francisco.
    There, the young Kauffmann was engrossed by the massive redwood trees rising to the clouds.
    "Wow, these things are amazing," he remembers saying. "Why don't we have trees like this in Virginia?"
    In 1996 he returned to California's Tulare County as a teacher in an outdoor school, bumping around the various mountain ranges in search of more conifers. He eventually migrated to Humboldt State University, where "Conifer Country" became the cornerstone of work that led to a master's degree.
    Lately, among other jobs, Kauffmann has done conifer mapping for the U.S. Forest Service.
    The books are more than a labor of love to tell the stories of the great trees he's marveled at for decades. They tell the ecological saga of Southern Oregon through its biggest inhabitants.
    "Besides, it's a good excuse to get outside and see cool places," he says.
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman.
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