A look back: The year and a decade in review

2017 marks a decade since we started our conservation projects in earnest.

How timely then, that we were scheduled for a review by the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC logo you see on your recycled and green wood products indicates the product has been certified to actually be “green”. Members adhere to specific standards that make their forests more planet-friendly. An agency – in our case, the Northwest Natural Resource Group – holds the certificate for its members, shepherds us along, and makes sure we report pesticide use and generally keep to the righteous path. Every few years the FSC audits a portion of the properties that are members of NNRG. This year we were asked to compare current practices to our management plan and explain how we measure our progress. Short answer: mainly by looking, because our “crop” is conservation, so it’s pretty simple compared to an actual tree farm.

It was helpful to look back and see where we are. The original plan was to restore oak savanna and woodland throughout the property. Some areas needed to be logged, others could be sheared and mowed. We have stuck with projects laid out by the Conservation District which differ from the management plan done by a consultant because some of the steeper areas are just too difficult or expensive to access.

Below, a few reflections, photos and assessments.

Progress is incremental. Everything takes time. We will get the scotch broom corralled eventually. Some increments that I appreciate are:

The savanna (really almost a bald) is still savanna-like. Scotch broom was as tall as the tractor when we started but thin soil and hot exposure have slowed down growth.

In all parts of the property, legacy patches of native wildflowers continue to expand and I enjoy finding the odd new plant or population, which gives me great hope, even though there will always be weeds and non natives.

The woodland oaks have more space and continue to put on growth after being crowded for many years. These things are best seen in contrast with previous condition.


Maintenance is forever. Yes, it is. Scotch broom is not forever, but it seems like it.

Getting new stuff to grow is a challenge, but Roemer’s fescue has really been a friend. California oat grass was hanging on when we arrived, we’ve seeded more of it and it’s a lovely bunch grass.

In the absence of fire, a good mowing makes everything better. I would like to burn more. but we don’t have fire available for management (land area too small, too close to neighbors, too expensive, etc), so we must pick our battles and do what we can.

Early- or mid-summer is the best time to mow for our objectives, because this often will kill mature scotch broom. But it is difficult to find a mower operator who will do this when we need it. Tom’s walk-behind has been a great help to reduce the non-native grass thatch in many places and a get to some of the broom in a timely fashion after the natives are done blooming.

Some firs have died of drought in the last few years – a sign that they are not suited to this site and/or climate change in this location. Possibly the thinning took away some of their support system.

dying fir. 2017

Douglas fir dying from the top down from repeated drought

Trees that were girdled to make space in the Land of Moose and Squirrel are toppling over but the big snags live on, with their tufts of branches still green, for now. The plan was to make them last as long as possible and right now they pose little threat to the surrounding oaks while offering a perch and some cavities for birds and squirrels.

Some oaks will unfortunately be on the losing end as conifers outgrow them in the inaccessible areas. On the positive side, our steep slopes provide many niches that are home to a variety of species, and some prefer a mixed forest, or a more closed canopy and patchy landscapes are natural. The thickest scotch broom was even favored by common yellowthroats in past years, although that will not save it from the knife I’m afraid.

Our squirrel survey revealed that western gray squirrels were using some pretty dense vegetation, and we see them in conifers around the house. On moister lower slopes, birds like Pacific slope flycatchers and black-throated gray warblers prefer our damp, cool headwater streams, shaded by a mixed conifer/oak forest that protects the water table and is the source of our springs. Sword ferns and moss carpet the ground. Wilson’s warblers return to their low perches here every year. It is a cool and welcome spot during the longer, hotter summers.

2017-12-20 edge.wdlnd.mixedforest

Mixed woodland, young firs will overtop oaks in time. Dead scotch broom in foreground.


Current Projects

In partnership with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation DIstrict, we are working to get the broom under control so we can manage it better. The woodland areas have a more benign microclimate and deeper soils than the savanna. Hence more weed invasion. Removing tree cover plus soil disturbance, while beneficial to oaks, has had the predictable result of releasing scotch broom to grow rampantly and outpace our control efforts. Repeated mowing early on kept the broom short, but did not kill it and it rebounded in the last few years. We were able to hire a contractor to spray and mow the worst of it this year.

In one area there are a lot of native plants hiding underneath, including rein orchids. We tried hand cutting and painting first (at my request) to see if we could avoid broadcast spraying. But after a morning of slogging, with the prospect of even taller and denser broom to come, I relented and agreed overspraying was a better choice. Fortunately James, our contractor, was quite careful (he really liked the orchids, which were new to him), and by the time he came back to mow, the orchids and other wildflowers were mostly underground, post-bloom. The wintertime “after” photo below makes me so happy!

Next year we’ll go in for a cleanup to spray regrowth missed on the first pass and make a plan for the seedlings – likely a combination of careful pulling and spraying in the dormant season. One mistake we will not repeat is to keep mowing the broom when it is small, since that just grows bigger roots for growth the next season.

In the third year of the project I plan to spray out non-native grass in several otherwise “clean” areas for a broadcast sowing of native plant seed. Non-native grasses are the second most vexatious problem we have. Burning a few smaller piles of slash works well to pave the way for broadcast sowings of California oat grass and Roemer’s fescue plus wildflowers. Checkermallow (Sidalcea spp) is still germinating from sowings more than a year or two ago, and slowly we are increasing the ratio of native to non native. I will be keeping an eye out, especially in the woodlands for new populations of natives(like the mystery lily below) and hand-weeding life rings around them .

Finally, aside from weeds, one of the challenges in the last few years has been unusually heavy winter rains that scour our small headwater streams. Adjacent land that formerly was covered with forests in various stages of regrowth has been cleared for agriculture, or just cleared and gone to broom. This means rainwater doesn’t get intercepted and soak slowly down to the water table like it used to. A rain drop takes hours, instead of days, to reach the creek across the road. We do what we can to slow it down, but as you can see, there is a large watershed area off the property. Our little paths have undersized culverts where they cross the streams, so the culverts get plugged up.

Again the Conservation District came through to quantify catchment areas and re-size some culverts that will be replaced, to handle the increased water volume. Eye opening views of our hydrology came to light in these maps. Ouch, no wonder there’s such a torrent.

We are slowly making some progress to bring back more native habitat and native plants. The weeds will always be with us, but we continue to make headway and enjoy our animals, birds, and plants through the seasons and the years.

The Truth

Over the last ten years, we have enjoyed the benefits of assistance – financial and technical – from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) an agency of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Our local conservation district has brokered cost-sharing from NRCS for our projects. These efforts improve the quality of our land for wildlife and native plants. They increase resilience in the fabric of the natural systems that provide clean water, clean air, and healthy soils that can sequester carbon. These agencies provide invaluable expertise and assistance to landowners across the nation who steward a vast amount of acreage.

All of these efforts can be undone by precipitous climate change, caused by humans. This fact is one of the greatest threats to our continued existence on earth. Yet, the current Administration in Washington D.C. is bent on wasting time clouding the issue, and refusing to address it for the emergency it has become.

The Guardian newspaper ran an article revealing email discussions and instructions within the USDA and NRCS, beginning in January 2017, to modify language to eliminate certain straightforward terms in public communications.

According to the article, “A missive from Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of soil health, lists terms that should be avoided by staff and what should replace them.”

“Climate change” is in the “avoid” category, to be replaced by “weather extremes”. Instead of “climate change adaption”, staff are asked to use “resilience to weather extremes”.
The primary cause of human-driven climate change is also targeted, with the term “reduce greenhouse gases” blacklisted in favor of “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency”. Meanwhile, “sequester carbon” is ruled out and replaced by “build soil organic matter”.

–The Guardian Monday 7 August 2017

Soil organic matter comes under the purview of government agencies that help farmers. It’s a big deal because it is an especially powerful way to change the course we are on with climate change. We should be able to discuss that openly. Damage to our soils over decades and centuries has reduced carbon storage and that’s one reason there is so much carbon dioxide in the air now. It’s not politics, it’s biology and physics.

This is more than just substituting different words and continuing to do the same work, changing the message because your boss has changed the message, hoping your budget won’t be cut to the bone. Words matter more than ever. Precision matters. Telling the truth makes a difference when truth and reality are being assaulted at every turn by those who hold power over policy and budgets.

I am disappointed and appalled that the USDA and the NRCS have caved to use “newspeak” instead of true and appropriate scientific terms. If department heads stand up to this pressure, they lose their jobs; perhaps they feel staying with their agencies is important to the survival of the few good things they can still accomplish.This bad behavior, the shameful generation of fear and lies, can be resisted. And it must be resisted at every turn.