August 1, 2006

Experts sow seeds of hope for regrowth

Sawtooth Complex Wildfire Recovery

By Mark Wheeler
Hi-Desert Star

PIONEERTOWN - “Don't give up on the plants.”

This was an oft-repeated and important message delivered Wednesday night at a fire recovery workshop staged in Pioneertown by the SummerTree Institute and Unique Garden Center, with the California Chaparral Field Institute.

Representatives from these three groups stood before approximately 175 to 200 victims of the Sawtooth fire who essentially had one burning question.

“Is all the natural beauty we once had here gone forever?”

Three experts on desert plants and plant ecology answered this question with an only slightly qualified “no.”

The pines and junipers which gave the Sawtooth and Pipes Canyon areas much of their botanical character, the speakers were sorry to say, would not regenerate to their prefire status in any near- or even mid-term future.

Many of the other icon species though, they were happier to report, would make reasonably good progress toward restoration; that is, if their prospects weren't interfered with by poor land management activities in the meantime or competition from invasive species.

Native desert plants are strongest underground, listeners were assured. What this means, they were informed, is that many of the plants here will regenerate from the roots.

Of course, this maxim will apply variably throughout the plant diversity in the area, and some species will demonstrate greater vigor than others in their recovery efforts. However, the primary message from the experts was to give nature a chance.

It's been taking care of itself for a long time, quite nicely enough without our help, they observed.

Not that neighbors can't take some action to help facilitate restoration, and most of the meeting's content was a steady stream of practical suggestions for everything from local sources for seedlings and transplants to growing tips to landscape design against future fire threat.

Central to all the individual suggestions was a single concept all the speakers elaborated on at length and urged with the greatest emphasis. Preserving the integrity of the soil crust, they insisted, would not only be vital to promoting restoration of the beloved native landscape, but would also be the first line of defense against exposing homes and properties to future fire threat.

Specifically, listeners were warned not to scrape, blade, drag or in any way break the soil crust, not even in their sensible efforts to disperse or dig-in the ash and soot on their properties.

They were advised to thin the residue with a leaf rake, and each speaker took pains to explain that the advisory against disturbing the soil crust was based on the vital need to discourage rampant invasion of non-native grasses.

These are powerful rivals of native plants for water, sun and space. In many places in the West, they are displacing natives and weakening ecological diversity.

Moreover, the spreading and dense nature of their growth patterns establishes a fuel highway over the landscape that carries fire easily and quickly from place to place, and their habitat of choice is disturbed soil.

Overheard in the audience were comments on the workshop that expressed everything from awe at how integrated the desert ecology is to vows that, “I'll certainly pay more attention to my landscaping in the future.”

For the most part, people were grateful for the hope they heard in the professional testimony. They were given good reason to believe the Hi-Desert around them would once again flourish with beauty and that they could, in all reality, expect to see it.

In their different ways, the three speakers did, indeed, apply their expertise to the germination of hope. This was the starting place SummerTree's Robin Kobaly said in her opening remarks was the purpose of the workshop.

Continuing with her own part of the presentation, she gave the audience solid botanical reasons to expect that many of the native plants would, in fact, regenerate.

Nursery owner Mike Branning advised listeners how best not to interfere with nature's recovery processes on their property and how to cultivate natives and arid land plants they could obtain from nurseries.

For his part, fire ecologist Richard Halsey explained how landscapes are quite capable of recovering from fire's effects and that we can apply ourselves most appropriately to restoration by not making land-use errors which only increases wildfire fuel loads.

“This is an opportunity,” Halsey encouraged. He and the others defined that opportunity throughout the evening as one for learning from nature's own processes.

Nature will heal itself, the speakers urged, and the abundant instruction in their presentation that evening was to inform people how they might best participate in that process and also, somewhat, help nurture beauty, finally, from their own grief.