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Brewer spruce still thrives on Fiddler Mountain

We live in a corner of the world that boasts botanical treasures found nowhere else on the planet. This unique natural heritage is woven into the culture of the region. From the wildflower festival in Jacksonville, to Woody Guthrie’s songs of “redwood forests,” to huckleberry pie at Beckie’s Cafe on the way to Crater Lake, the amazing botany of our area has long been a source of pride and pleasure.

One of the least-known horticultural wonders in our neck of the woods is the Brewer (or “weeping”) spruce. Perhaps the rarest conifer tree species in the world, Brewer spruce are found in just a few corners of the Klamath-Siskiyous. While prized for its sweeping branches and attractive appearance, the slow-growing spruce is difficult to cultivate due to strict climatic and soil requirements that limit its range to a handful of sites.

One of the special places where this elusive species still thrives is on Fiddler Mountain near Babyfoot Lake in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

I was recently fortunate enough to obtain a Forest Service permit to enter the Klondike fire closure area in order to visit several botanical hotspots and ascertain the impacts of the fire and fire-suppression activities on species and areas of concern. The drive up the 4201 road from the Illinois River to the Babyfoot Lake trailhead has been designated by the Forest Service as the “TJ Howell Botanical Drive.” Due to the renowned and unique botanical values along the route, it has long been popular with botanists and sightseers. Many of the rare and endemic species found along the Botanical Drive have evolved over millennia to thrive on serpentine soils that are rich in heavy metals and low in nitrogen.

The road to Babyfoot Lake is a wildflower lover’s dream. The Eight Dollar Mountain, Days Gulch and Babyfoot habitat hotspots are scattered along the drive and are all recognized by the Forest Service as official “botanical areas” due to their significant biological values. Unfortunately, each of these botanical hotspots face serious threats to their well-being; the Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Area has been damaged by illegal trash dumping and off-road vehicle use, the Days Gulch Botanical Area is adjacent to several mining claims, and the Babyfoot Botanical Area was accidentally clearcut by the Forest Service following the 2002 Biscuit fire. Local citizen volunteers are working tirelessly with the Forest Service to protect and restore these special places.

While none of the “official” botanical areas along the Howell Botanical Drive are specifically designated to protect rare Brewer spruce groves, the species nevertheless thrives on the slopes of 4,912-foot Fiddler Mountain, which towers above surrounding post-fire forests.

It is absolutely stunning to stand atop Fiddler Mountain and view the effects of the 2002 Biscuit fire and the 2018 Klondike fire. The snags (dead trees) extend as far as one can see in the immense landscape. Much of the burn on this side of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness was the result of Forest Service “burnout” operations during fire suppression that were designed to remove fuels ahead of the wildfire. Despite the extensive fire effects, the rare Brewer spruce population on the slopes of Fiddler Mountain is thriving. It is heartening to see the mix of green trees and snags that provide habitat for a wide swath of wildlife species evidenced by the drumming of woodpeckers and the plethora of bear scat. Indeed, the cycle of fire, death and rejuvenation is in full bloom in these fire-evolved and fire-dependent forests.

The slow-growing and graceful Brewer spruce groves of Fiddler Mountain have persisted through wildfires, development of the mountaintop, and widespread Forest Service logging and road construction activities, but accelerating climate change and the increasing lack of heavy winter snowpack (and the resulting reduction in spring meltwater) may present a new threat to this extremely rare conifer. Despite the vast changes and challenges that the Fiddler Mountain forests have experienced over the last several decades, this rare spruce grove remains a place like nowhere else on Earth.

George Sexton serves as conservation director for the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Photo by George Sexton Brewer or "weeping" spruce trees highlight the green forests in the Fiddler Mountain area of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.