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.

In Praise of Snags

Snags are standing dead or dying trees. In natural forests in the Pacific Northwest, there are usually a number of trees that have died from lack of light, overcrowding, competition and whatnot. Forests older than 150 years are heading into old growth status and by then some trees in these forests have been killed by fungi infecting the roots or trunk (the diseases they cause go by colorful names like stringy butt rot or laminated root rot). Wind is a big creator of snags. There may be some broken tops in trees with sound roots but weak trunks (windsnap) or if the roots are rotten or the ground soft from rain and snow, blow downs (windthrow).

In an old-growth west side conifer forest (250 – 1000+ yrs) diversity abounds: openings where giants have fallen let in light to allow shrubs and seedlings to grow better, there is wood on the ground, standing dead snags, trees growing out of nurse logs, a mossy zone with perennials and groundcovers, a shrub layer, a lower understory tree layer, intermediate to very tall trees. This is all great from an ecologist’s perspective.

An oak woodland has a different character. If a woodland or savanna was burned, it might have an open character. If no fire killed the young trees and brush, it will be crowded with skinny trees reaching over each other for the light, maybe one or two legacy giants that were seedlings 150 to 300 years ago, overtopped by douglas firs; dappled shade, poison oak shrubs, and vines climbing the trees, grasses, a few shrubs (serviceberry, snowberry) and flowering bulbs (camas) and perennials (checkermallow, strawberries) persist in the low light. There will be dead standing oaks in either case, many with dead branches and brittle broken limbs among the live ones. And lichens: many species and a great biomass of lichens.

In a managed forest, the forester does the thinning in order to grow fatter trees for market, like a row crop. When these trees – all the same age – are eventually cut, like giant broccoli, there will be some green trees left and some dead standing snags because the Oregon Department of Forestry requires it.

Why? Why do we value snags enough to write them – however few and inadequate in number – into the forestry regulations? Life. And diversity. A dead tree has arguably more life in it than a live tree. The diversity of fungi, bacteria, and wood decay organisms is enormous. Beetles, termites, ants, and others feed on the dead wood and fungi. These are the base of the food web, the decomposers and recyclers that return nutrients stored over decades or centuries, to the forest.

There are plenty of birds (woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches) who visit the snag to find food, and excavate nest cavities in the softening wood. Others (owls, bats) who can’t excavate a hole, use those made by woodpeckers, in a grand circle of beneficial re-use and mutual aid. A dead tree is a great place for a raptor like a hawk or osprey to nest or sit and watch for prey, possibly a douglas or flying squirrel. Snags are so important to wildlife that getting rid of them endangers species that rely on old growth and dead wood.

Next time you drive through the Oregon Coast Range on the way to the beach, observe the difference between a national forest and adjacent tree farms owned privately or by the BLM. Instantly the trees get bigger in the national forest, the ground level cooler and more diverse, the depth of the canopy is higher and the light changes. Streams look like real streams. This you can tell at 55 miles per hour.

We had a tree next to the house made into a snag. A dougfir that needed to be removed for safety. Our arborist Brian French (that’s him up the tree in photo below) took off the limbs, topped it and crafted a new jagged top – an outstanding fake lightning strike to accelerate fungal invasion. (Final touch was a birdhouse built by birdman Tom Brewster, volunteer with the Yamhill Conservation District and local woodworker.) Brian also hollowed out a section of trunk behind a carefully cut piece of bark, then replaced the bark so the birds could move in right away without waiting for the snag to soften up.

Just in time for nesting season, a tree swallow pair scouted it and pronounced it livable. The rest of the flock looks on in envy. For the first time we have tree swallows careening over the house grabbing insects in the new, more sunny and open space. Yay snag.

Prairie Field Day Arrives – May 31


This gallery contains 13 photos.

Many thanks to Amie Loop-Frison of the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District and her prodigious organizing skills to pull this off. It was a beautiful day, a fun tour, and an inspiration to see so many people interested in … Continue reading

Time. Maps. Closeup views

A previous post showed the general lay of the land over time in our neighborhood. Here is a closeup of changes we have wrought since we’ve been there. If you click on a photo it will take you to gallery view.

The first conservation treatment brought in a mower to cut down huge old growth scotch broom – scourge of Northwestern natural areas. Smaller trees were sheared on the west side, and near the middle of the 20 acres (2006-2007) to create the savanna and oak woodland. The relatively filled-in appearance after 1994 is likely due to a lot of regrowth of weedy brush (broom and blackberries) over disturbed ground.

Our latest treatment began in 2011. This is where you can see change on the landscape more clearly. We had more trees sheared, and a lot of larger diameter trees were removed – 2011 and 2012 photos show the opening of the oak woodland/savannah in the center and lower left (SW corner) near the pond, where the “boulevard” was opened along an existing pathway with removal of many smaller firs and some oaks).

Although the first treatment brought major changes on the ground, the activity is more obvious from the aerial perspective in the last couple of views – possibly because of the size and number of trees removed with the last cut. Over 100 oaks, and about 100 firs were removed, and they were larger than the ones that were sheared initially.

Another change that is more visible recently is seen in a faint diagonal opening just above the middle in the land of moose and squirrel. This is where fir trees were girdled and are now standing dead trees, plus three large snags intentionally left alive but with most limbs removed. Dead trees and a trail just above them look somewhat like the 1994 view before trees and brush filled in.

So, some real habitat changes now, encouraging the ‘traditional’ residents of the oak savanna and woodland. Got those white-breasted nuthatches (two at least) so maybe they will build a nest this year!

Perhaps I will take you on a video tour soon…

What Is A Habitat Conservation Plan?

While the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) makes it illegal to negatively impact listed animal species (known as “take”), a permit (called an incidental take permit) can be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allows a limited amount of incidental take if the following conditions are met:

(1) A Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is developed that describes how the impacts to the species will be monitored, minimized and mitigated.

(2) Funding to implement the HCP and procedures to deal with unforeseen circumstances affecting the species, its habitat or the HCP are ensured.

(3) The incidental take identified in the HCP does not appreciably reduce the likelihood of the survival and recovery of the species in the wild (USFWS 1996).

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973. If a species is “listed” as endangered it is legally protected. Listing is a prolonged and not always successful process, involving study, counting, and documenting extinction danger. Once listed, a further requirement is formulation of a plan for building up populations and habitat for them so that the species can increase to the point where it is no longer endangered.

Landowners who are lucky enough to have property that is home to an endangered species can keep using their land – to grow crops, for example – by signing on to, and following An HCP. If they don’t, then these activities might actually be prohibited entirely, so participating in the HCP protects them from prosecution.

This is sometimes hard to get across to people who are worried about limits to the use of their property – joining allows you to continue an action that might harm an endangered species (you have a permit), as part of a plan that makes up for it in other ways. Not joining could mean less freedom to use your property.

The main reason for an HCP is not to allow take, however, but to establish best management practices to avoid it, and help people take care of their land and the species that belong to all of us.

I participate in a landowner advisory group with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District, which is writing an HCP for Fender’s Blue Butterfly (endangered) and its larval host plant, Kincaid’s Lupine (threatened). I hope that the limited number of landowners in the county who have these species on their property will join us in caring for the habitat that supports them. It is so seldom we can say that our actions make a difference – what a wonderful opportunity!

The trees are coming down

Managing our little scrap of ecosystem is a ton of work.

This blog is a chronicle of our ongoing projects to adjust conditions here to favor, as much as possible, native plants and wildlife that were here when the Willamette Valley was a big, open, Indian-managed habitat.

If you are curious about the rationale for our work here, and why in the world we are cutting so many trees, I will intersperse some previous posts for a little background. Also there are some pages in the sidebar with more info; see especially my post on Tending the Wild.

For this final project, to get things going in the direction of oak woodland and savanna and away from congested dougfir and poison oak, we are logging about 2 acres of mostly scraggly second growth trees. (For the story up till now, In the Beginning.)

A good cigar makes the work go faster

Marked for removal

After getting funding and advice from the Conservation District, Tom and I measured and personally marked almost 300 trees FOR DEATH! Mind you, this is not an old growth temperate rainforest. It used to be much more open here at the edge of the Willamette Valley in an ecosystem that has suffered – yes, SUFFERED – the effects of over 160 years of abuse and neglect at the hands of people grazing, homesteading, logging, farming, and developing:

“… As the Kalapuya were displaced by EuroAmerican settlers, the amount of burning decreased, and as early as 1852, young firs and “oakgrubs” were reported growing up on the prairies. Present-day conditions show that, without fire disturbance, succession leads to invasion by trees and shrubs, often non-native, and the unique communities that evolved under the fire regime of presettlement times are lost.

In the 1850s, diverse conifer forests were found at higher elevations and on steeper slopes. Periodic fires maintained the tree communities on the hilltops and edges of the valley as either savannas with herbaceous understories or woodlands with open canopies and brushy undergrowth.

Cessation of burning changed the structure of these open woodlands by allowing repopulation of the openings with tree seedlings. Rapidly growing Douglasfir began to proliferate in many places, shading out the oaks. Settlers introduced exotic plants and grazing by cattle, sheep, and horses which significantly reduced the native herb layer.

Approximately 12% of the lower elevation 1851 woodland and savanna/prairie communities remain.” [emphasis added – actually some estimates of surviving habitat are much lower – jt]*

Crowded firs and oaks marked for thinning

Here is what the current project site looked like before thinning – very crowded, skinny trees competing for light, water and nutrients.

Restoration is often more like horticulture and gardening than anything else. Just think of it as thinning carrots – with a chainsaw.

Intensive management is not a new thing – before Europeans began the process of timber harvest, agriculture, and development, the landscape was not without human intervention. The thing is, it worked well for people, plants and animals, many of which are now extinct or endangered:

“The native people of the region, called ‘Kalapuya’ by the settlers after the native term for “long grass,” had periodically burned the valley in order to maximize their food and fiber resources. Tree-ring studies reveal that frequent fires occurred in the valley from at least 1647 to 1848. … The valley floor was thus kept in an early successional ecological stage that was essential for the persistence of the camas and tarweed, another dietary staple.”

*(© PNW Ecosystems Research Consortium. S. Gregory, L. Ashkenas, D. Oetter, P. Minear, K. Wildman, J. Christy, S. Kolar, E. Alverson.)

To get a perspective on just how prevalent Indian land management was, it is instructive to read M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (University of Ca Press, paperback ed 2006).

Here are some excerpts that challenged my notions of America before Europeans:

“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view that the California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy vistas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb, and greens gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting, and seed scattering.”

“California Indians did not distinguish between managed land and wild land as we do today… Interestingly, contemporary Indians often use the word wilderness as a negative label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time…’The white man sure ruined this country,’ said James Rust, a Southern Sierra Miwok elder. ‘It’s turned back to wilderness’ (pers.comm. 1989). California Indians believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge, passed down through generations, is broken, and the land becomes ‘wilderness’.”


“Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities.”

Anderson documents that this level of detail extended to location, soil and microclimate, and timing of harvest based on when a plant was most suitable for a particular purpose. She cites others who have found this to be true:

“…[anthropologist A.L.] Kroeber’s 1939 field notes…record that the Yurok of northwestern California practiced burning at a frequency that was appropriate for each cultural purpose: burning of hazelnut for basketry occurred every two years; burning under the tan oaks to keep the brush down took place every three years; burning for elk feed occurred every fourth or fifth year; burning in the redwoods for brush and downed fuel control occurred every three to five years.”

She notes that all this management had the effect of increasing biodiversity and abundance. The absence of management has impoverished biological communities.

“Edible butterflies and moths, which were harvested in the larval and pupal stages, included the whitelined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata)…, and the pandora moth (Colorado pandora)…According to Western Mono elders, the pandora moth…used to be common on the west side of the Sierra Madre but now it is rare…Many Indians recalled that the tortoise-shell butterfly was common in chaparral (Ceanothus cuneatus) areas…and would come every year. It is now seen once every decade or so, and in some areas I has not been sighted for forty years.”

The savanna and woodland landscape was maintained from California north, through the inland valleys of Oregon and southwestern Washington, the Puget Basin, to the tip of Vancouver Island (see range map of Oregon white oak in the sidebar information on the “about oaks” page of this site).

So that’s the backstory on our efforts. Here’s what we’ve been up to this summer so far:

I. Thinning oaks, removing firs

Shearing the smaller diameter trees with the skid-steer shear. We can’t just start burning – there is too much fuel, and then there are the neighbors to think about. First the trees have to be thinned. Once there are fewer trees per acre, and some native grass established, it is very beneficial to burn. If we can’t burn, regular mowing is the less successful alternative.

The first pass was done by R-J Consulting Natural Restoration. First, the smaller trees, up to 12 inches or so in diameter, were cut at the base and stacked by the skid-steer shear. This amazing rubber tracked vehicle has multiple attachments for cutting, grappling, mowing and grinding. It’s very light and handy – minimizing soil disturbance and working with almost surgical precision.

You can see it in action HERE

II. Trees to Logs

Second step: cutting the trees too big for the shear. Our logger, Randy is a careful and judicious tree cutter. Also impressively accurate, making it look terribly easy – which it’s not. Since the trees needed to come down, please join me in enjoying the show without guilt – it is so impressive to see the big ones come down just in the spot they were aimed.

See Videos of all stages at http://www.youtube.com/user/GopherValleyJournal#g/c/F6ABAC5113E864BB

Limbing a tree – now it’s a log

It’s a mess. Logging is a messy business, no way around it. Slash and tree parts end up everywhere, gets pushed together, scattered around, etc. Logs get dragged around over the soil, and the dry clay loam becomes a layer of fluffy dust inches thick.

However, during the driest season, the least harm will be done to the soil. We waited until nesting season was over, and the birds and small animals should be mostly out of the way. It’s also quite a small (2 acre) area we are working in, so there will be ways for animals to disperse away, and for others to recolonize from adjacent habitat.

 Logs to lumber and pulp:

See the self-loader working HERE.

Self-loader taking the first load for the mill. I love those big machines!

Trees to logs – the deck

So that’s how we went from this:


To this, in a few weeks:


Beginning to see more light

Stay tuned for:

III   The clean up – mowing and chipping

IV   Replanting and monitoring the results – starting to push the ecosystem in a new direction.

V  What can you do with some skinny oak logs?

VI  Burning??? We hope, someday.


Part of the work here involves modifying habitat so that it is more suitable for plants and animals that are losing ground in the competition for habitat, or succumbing to encroachment from aggressive invasive species. You might think that squirrels are not endangered since they are so common in urban areas, but it turns out that our own Western gray squirrel, (as opposed to the non-native, ubiquitous and annoying Eastern gray of the city) are listed as a sensitive species in Oregon, and threatened (one step before endangered) in Washington State.

The handsome Western grays – silver-grays in the local parlance – are larger than Eastern grey and fox squirrels and have white hairs that give their fur a silvery appearance and sport very big bushy tails. Western gray squirrels are denizens of oak woodlands, and of course since this habitat is much reduced, their numbers are falling. Eastern grey squirrels out-compete them in the same habitat, and they have also been over-hunted as a game species.

Our squirrel habitat project was especially fun, because as Dean (our contact at the conservation district) was learning new things, he passed them on to me. Dean had already scoped out a new section along the savanna and woodland for native squirrel habitat. The first step was to identify the species that were present, if any, using a hair trap (see below).

The trap is a tube baited with acorns or hazelnuts and some of that heavy double-stick picture hanging tape. When the squirrels go in the tube, the tape grabs a few hairs off their back. If you happen to have access to a squirrel expert, (as Dean did) she can tell you if it is a native or a non native squirrel by looking at the hairs microscopically. Our squirrel hairs were from a native. The forensics were a success.

Dean with his hair trap
Squirrel hair trap in place with goodies
Got the hairs!

Now that the squirrels were confirmed, habitat work began. This consisted of getting rid of firs and thinning out some oaks to allow the remaining trees room to bush out and form a continuous canopy. This makes it easy for squirrels to jump from tree to tree. Larger trees offer better nest sites too, because they have larger branches and may have holes the squirrels can use for nests. Gray squirrels also use the edge of the forest near the open savanna, and I’ve seen them near the house in the firs as well, so they seem pretty opportunistic.

The Doug firs and some crowded oaks were killed by girdling – chopping through the outer living layer all the way around the tree to cut off the flow of fluids. The land was too steep for good machinery access, and this method was less expensive, quicker, and had the advantage of creating some standing dead wood for future habitat for woodpeckers, owls and other critters.

As fungi soften up the wood in a dead tree by digesting the carbon, many organisms will move in. Beetles and other insects can be in living or dead wood; woodpeckers come looking for insects to eat and make holes which can offer nesting cavities for squirrels and owls and other birds. A dead tree on the ground or standing will end up have more biological action going on than it did when it was alive.

Cavities in living or dead trees are part of a diverse structure in either oak or fir woods and are normally present in older stands, but not usually tree farms. Processes that create structure for habitat naturally (broken branches, fungus, insects) will produce a “messier” look, which is normal. In the absence of a lightning strike or whole tree death, mechanically limbing and topping will create an artificial snag.

Girdling a tree makes it eventually fall over, breaking at the bottom where the cuts were made. Not so safe if you’re walking around, plus it doesn’t last as long as one that is top-killed. Topped trees tend to “melt” according to the cutter who made our snags. Altogether a longer-lasting and safer option. Since topping is a fairly expensive operation, we chose just three of the largest firs for this treatment. Some limbs are left on to prolong the life of what tree is left after the gory operation:

Tree before topping begins
Most of limbing complete. Climber checking the wind before the final cut on tree #1
Tree climber cutting the top off the third tree

The topping was pretty dramatic. It is exciting to see a fast tree climber work on these snags. See it in action:

Here is the view a few months later. It looks devastated, but the oaks will fill in over time and there will be lots of value in even the smaller dead trees as they decompose and offer perching spots as well as a carbon supply to the decomposition process.

dead trees and a snag a few months after girdling to open up oak stand
Two of the tall snags on right and left background of photo
southern edge of the Land of Moose & Squirrel w/ snag and oaks

That’s not the end of the squirrel story though. I often caught site of what looked like a gray squirrel on the ground near some of our outbuildings. It seemed quite at home on the ground. Hmmm … eventually some little squirrels materialized, and our dog seemed very excited to go out to the brush and wood piles in the yard. Could it be that a female decided she preferred the brush piles to the trees? I had never seen any reference to nests anywhere but trees, but we kept seeing these critters on the ground, running towards a hole in the ground or one of the wood piles. After consulting my Living With Wildlife book (chipmunks: small golf-ball sized holes; squirrels: baseball-sized holes), turns out, we have yet another species of native squirrels: the also handsome California ground squirrel aka gray digger. As the habitat opens up with farming and the climate warms, they feel more and more at home here. And they love to dig a big network of tunnels right under buildings if a boulder isn’t handy.

There seems to be a family of two kids and a mom. They forage quite busily every morning on green apples and seeds from various trees in the yard. Ominously, they have now intersected with a bunch of chipmunks tunneling under the house and possibly living in the crawl space.

That’s what happens when you live in the woods – everyone picks their favorite spot, heedless of the wonderful natural habitat that might be just a little less comfy than your human one.

The next strategy was to see if we could get the squirrel and/or chipmunk in a live trap to make sure they were not under the house, then build some barricades. I had originally gotten a chipmunk-sized live trap, but I thought I’d see if the squirrel would fit. Sure enough – the trap was just big enough to accommodate a (smallish) agitated California ground squirrel.

Squirrel and trap next to entrance hole

We covered the trap with a towel and walked her up the hill to the official “habitat” which Tom had christened the Land of Moose and Squirrel. As she burst out of the cage, I remarked that she would probably be waiting for us when we got back to the house. Which, in fact, happened. Turns out, the trees are not where the ground squirrels prefer to be.

Step two of this process, as advised by the trusty “Living With Wildlife” was to dig a trench along the house, line it with hardware cloth, and hope for the best (that last bit is my own).

the strategy – dig an even bigger hole and barricade with wire

This was beginning to feel like an arms race – small hole, large trench, what next? I finished filling in my trench, hoping it would be sufficient to foil the rodent that, after all only has its claws as tools, but they are called gray diggers for a reason. There have been some exploratory holes in the old spot, but so far I’m ahead. The chipmunks are determinedly working on getting back in.

A day or two later, an alarmed-squirrel sound outside inspired me to try to get close enough to take a couple of photos. This was indeed our wonderful Western gray – bigger bushy tail, silvery grey. She was barking at the cat, which probably does not outweigh her, and for once this tree squirrel did not mind me getting within range. Gray squirrels make an interesting chuckling sound. At the same time she was drumming on the tree branch with her claws, sending a complicated message to whatever other creatures could speak squirrel. Perhaps the ground squirrel,which also climbs trees.

So far the troublesome ground squirrels seem to be gaining each year and the gray squirrels are fewer and more shy. It will be interesting to observe them both in the coming seasons.

Western grey squirrel up a tree – where it belongs
Western grey squirrel in scolding mode

Why I Love the Conservation District

What’s a conservation district?

County conservation districts – ours is the Yamhill County Soil and Water Conservation District – have their origins in the Dust Bowl and Depression. Hugh Hammond Bennett was the force behind the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service, which spawned the districts nationwide. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service website has this historical note:

“In 1933, the Soil Erosion Service, predecessor to the Soil Conservation Service and NRCS, began working with farmers in the Coon Creek watershed of southwestern Wisconsin [Aldo Leopold, mentor of modern ecological restoration was part of this early project] to transform the square, eroding fields into what one sees today—a conservation showplace of contouring, stripcropping, terracing, and wise land use that benefits the soil, air, water, as well as the plant, animal, and human life of the whole watershed.
[blogger’s note: wise land use is not – repeat NOT – anything to do with the “wise use” movement which has hijacked the term and ideals of sensible land stewardship]

The carpeting of the land with soil conservation works nationwide was hastened with the passage of the Soil Conservation Act in April of 1935. Recognition of the first conservation district, bounded by the Brown Creek watershed in North Carolina, on August 4, 1937, established a method for the Service to assist farmers in the conservation districts. Locally elected citizens established priorities and plans for the district’s work.”

Why are they the heroes?

1)  There are patches of high quality habitat in reserves on public land, but as the NRCS points out, 70% of the land in the United States is privately owned. This is the matrix through which animals and plants must migrate, disperse and live. Therefore private land is critical to the maintenance of ecosystem services:  clean air and water, soils that provide nutrients instead of requiring injections of fertilizer like a heroine addict, and natural pest control from beneficial insects and birds. It isn’t difficult to provide a little space for diversity, and if these places connect, mine with yours, and yours with you neighbor’s, the effective size of the habitat is much larger.

That’s why people who work with landowners are so important. Every farmer, suburban and urban homeowner can afford space to have hedgerows, a tree, or some shrubs in a relatively undisturbed state for insects and animals that need it. The conservation district works with landowners individually to help them accomplish this and finds money to fund it to boot.

2) It’s important to note, especially in these days of ubiquitous, know-nothing, anti-goverment ranting, that there are a lot of government agencies staffed with people whose job is to help people do the right thing. And they do. Many of them go even further and do most of the work for you. Our property was in a group  funded by a Landowner Incentive Program grant. The agency staff wrote the grant, got the funding, hired the operators to mow and shear, and provided guidance, plants, and seed afterward. Our job is to maintain it into the future. But it is likely we will have help with that too.

3) Dean, our contact at the conservation district is another reason. He retired recently and his job had to be split between two people because it was hard to find someone with all his skills. He cared personally about each of his landowners and their projects and he knew all our hills and dales because he walked them, mapped them, flagged them for treatments, and took us along, pointing out and naming plants, showing us the slope and direction of treatments and a hundred other things. He was patient and always willing to talk about the project, even though he was extremely busy with projects all over the county much larger than our little patch.

Dean’s prescriptions always came in the form of questions – would we like to do this or that; would it be okay if he brought in a summer youth employment group to weed our native plant plots (holy cow, I was embarrassed I hadn’t weeded it!); which trees did we think would be good wildlife snags (the ones he had already picked out were the best – of course).

Even though we will miss him, we are able to keep working with equally dedicated people we can count on for assistance and advice. And that’s why I love the conservation district.