Welcome to the Land Conservancy's blog, Exploring Our Region! We will be featuring various contributors in this space. Enjoy!

Conserved lands connect kids with nature and prepare them for a bright future

Staff member Kristi Mergenthaler takes a moment to pose with a group of kids learning about birds and trees.

Each Spring, students from local elementary schools join us to learn about rocks, bugs, and the freshly budding trees and plants in the Oredson-Todd Woods. The program, “Loving the Land,” is coordinated by the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy.

“Kids just love to get outside this time of year,” says staff member Kristi Mergenthaler. “We’re excited to offer this great opportunity to learn about nature each year, especially given school budget cuts.  We encourage the kids to explore their outdoor classroom on all different levels.  Afterward, they get to bring their parents out - and teach them, too!”

Fourth and fifth grade students rotate through three activity stations located along the trails in the Oredson-Todd Woods, learning first-hand about the water, rocks, bugs, trees, and plants - all with the guidance of trained volunteers.

In five years, more than 1,100 students from throughout the Rogue Valley have attended this program, made possible with support from the Oregon Parks Foundation Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation, the Rogue Valley Audubon Society, and our generous supporters.

The Southern Oregon Land Conservancy has conserved a number of other lands that are regularly used as outdoor classrooms, including:
•    White Oak Farm,
•    Alder Creek Children’s Forest,
•    The Jacksonville Woodlands,
•    Eagle Mill Farm, and
•    C2 Ranch.

Photo credit: John Bruckman

The Southern Oregon Land Conservancy is dedicated to protecting traditional livelihoods like farming, ranching, and timber production.  That’s because a strong economy and conserved lands go hand-in-hand.  Without careful and strategic conservation, we would not have locally grown food and other agricultural products.  That’s why we’ve made it a priority to protect agricultural lands and working forests in Southern Oregon.

Agricultural Lands
Rogue Valley agriculture remains a fundamental part of our region’s economy and significantly contributes to the scenic character and quality of life important to communities. Orchards and vegetable farms occupy much of the prime irrigated farmland in the valley bottom. Increasingly, vineyards cover the low foothills and slopes around the bottomlands which are less suitable for field crops. Ranches operate on the irrigated pastures and in the oak woodlands and grasslands of the foothills. Small organic and truck farms and other specialty operations also abound in rural locations throughout the Rogue Valley.

However, land that can support these agricultural activities is very limited in Southern Oregon. Much of this land is located in the valley bottoms and adjacent low country along the Rogue, Applegate, and Illinois Rivers, and their larger tributaries. These lands represent a small percent of the total land area of the Rogue Basin, yet they are the same areas where population growth and development is occurring. For example, the Bear Creek Valley, which includes the cities of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford, Central Point, and Jacksonville, contains one the most extensive areas of
valuable agricultural soils in southwest Oregon, as well as the largest and fastest growing population.

Working Forests
Responsibly managed working forests provide benefit to the public and for the environment through a sustainable supply of wood products, jobs for rural communities, diverse vegetation, wildlife habitat, as well as clean air and water. Private timber companies own many acres of land in the counties with smaller parcels owned by individuals and family partnerships.

Some privately owned forestlands are managed primarily for the inherent economic values that they offer—especially production of forest products such as logs, lumber and other products that support the forest industry. However, private forestlands are increasingly being managed to retain, protect and promote both economic and ecologic values. Most often occurring on non-industrial private small woodland parcels, these types of forestlands have come to be known as working forests.

Goals for working forests often include managing for older larger trees of long-lived species. Goals may also include creation or enhancement of special habitats for a variety of plant and animal species. Healthy forests across landscapes have a diversity of seral stages just as a healthy human population has a diversity of age classes.

Activities in working forests are carefully planned over time with basic guiding principles such as:

  • focusing on what will remain (or be created) in the forest after an activity rather than what will be removed;
  • maintaining the productive capacity of soils;
  • using systems that replicate natural disturbances, such as fire, wherever possible;
  • encouraging diversity and growth of species that might naturally occur on that particular site;
  • avoiding fragmentation of plant and animal habitat (often caused by roads and large clearcuts); and
  • evaluating the site as part of a larger ecosystem with respect to adjacent lands and sensitive areas such as riparian areas.

Conservation goals across landscapes can only be met with the engaged participation of private forest ownerships Common activities in working forests include removing small diameter trees and selected brush to reduce fire danger and enhance growth of preferred species, low intensity underburning through carefully prescribed fires, pruning branches of remaining trees, as well as careful selection of commercially viable trees to be removed within the context of broader more ecologically appropriate goals and objectives.

In the words of ecologist Tom Atzet, “Managing forested ecosystems relies on science and art with a healthy dose of humility.”

Home Page Photo Credit: Thomas Kirchen Photography

The Southern Oregon Land Conservancy is dedicated to saving the places which make our region one of the most biologically interesting places in the world.  Working with our partners, we have identified a number of key habitats which deserve permanent protection from human encroachment.

We are working to protect:
•    Oak Woodland, Chaparral, and Grasslands,
•    Ultramafic Landscapes, and
•    Older Forests.

Oak Woodland, Chaparral, and Grasslands
Key habitat types are identified as important due to their role in supporting high biologic diversity and rare or declining plants and animals.  In western Oregon and Washington, less than 1% of oak woodland and savanna remains following European settlement.

This endangered habitat, occupying primarily private lands on the valley floor and lower mountain slopes in the Rogue Basin, has been converted to farms, ranches, cities, industrial zones, and residential areas - while fire suppression has interrupted the natural fire frequency, shifting oak woodlands into mixed conifer forests. Invasive non-native plants like Himalayan blackberry and Scot’s broom reduce the survival and growth of oak seedlings as well as other native wildflowers.

In Southern Oregon, the oak savanna complex forms a mosaic of open oak savanna, denser oak woodland, chaparral and meadow. This mix of habitat types is one of the many factors that enhance biodiversity due to the “edge effect.”

The edge effect is an ecological term that describes how the juxtaposition of a variety of habitats increases the tendency to support a greater number of plant and wildlife species. For instance, Gentner’s fritillaria (Fritillaria gentneri), a federally endangered red  lily only found in our region, is most often found where oak woodland or chaparral habitats intersect with other habitat types.

In the spring, oak savannas support a beautiful carpet of native wildflowers and provide critical habitat for numerous neotropical songbirds. Large tracts of the oak savanna complex also provide important wildlife corridors offering dispersal through changing climate and connectivity to other protected lands.

Ultramafic Landscapes
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has identified Strategic Opportunity Areas for important habitats such as oak woodlands. The Klamath-Siskiyou region is one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America, second only to the Appalachian Mountain region.

The Klamath-Siskiyous support an exceedingly high number of plant and animal species. One primary reason for this biodiversity is due to the complex geology of the region including the largest concentration of ultramafic bedrock in North America.

Ultramafic bedrock originates from mantle rock deep in the earth’s crust, including rocks like serpentine and peridotite. Serpentine rocks are green and slippery looking while peridotite is knobby and red to black. Ultramafic means that the rocks are high in iron and magnesium. Soils derived from these rocks weather to a striking red color.

Many rare, threatened, and endangered plants are associated with ultramafic soils such as cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica), Lee’s lewisia, (Lewisia leeana), and Waldo gentian (Gentiana setigera). Some of these rare plants are endemic to the region and grow nowhere else. At least 40 species in Southwest Oregon and Northwest California are considered endemic serpentine plants.

About 11% of federal and state listed rare plants in the Klamath Siskiyou region only grow in ultramafic soils. A number of unique vegetation types, such as Darlingtonia fens, Jeffrey pine savanna, and Port-Orford-cedar riparian areas are also associated with ultramafic soils. Some lands, such as the Jeffrey pine savanna, can often be seen at a distance appearing more barren than surrounding landscapes due to the harsher growing conditions.

Older Forests
Older Forest habitats refer to those areas where trees are large enough to support the variety of species associated with “old growth,” such as spotted owls, red tree voles, Cyperpidium orchids (mountain lady slipper and the clustered lady slipper), and other fauna and flora. Habitat associated with older forests (also called late successional habitat) is often synonymous with northern spotted owl habitat and may refer to those areas commonly used for nesting and roosting.

As with other special habitats, there are far fewer older forests in southwest Oregon than 100 years ago due to logging, development, and wildfire—factors which continue to threaten these areas––especially on private lands. In our region the size of trees used by spotted owls is often much smaller than that used by owls further north in Oregon and Washington.

Home Page Photo Credit: Lee Webb

We are blessed with the best volunteers! Peter Kleinhenz just graduated from the Masters of Environmental Education Program at Southern Oregon University, but while in school, he still found the time this year to volunteer his time with us. At the last Ashland Where You At, a fun natural history community education event at Standing Stone, he dazzled the crowd with a short and passionate presentation on local snakes. More recently, Peter, with his reptile-loving friend Colin Guiley, conducted a preliminary reptile and amphibian survey of the Rogue River Preserve. While flipping over rocks, they found many critters, most notably a Common Kingsnake.  Although this snake isn’t ALL that common in Oregon.

See below excerpts from Peter and Colin's report: Herpetofauna Observations.

May 16, 2015
Rogue River Property near Dodge Bridge

Species: Common Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula)
Where Observed:  Juvenile found under a small (6 inch diameter) rock where grown-over road meets middle terrace south of access road.
Status: Rare. Only one juvenile was observed during an extremely thorough search in prime habitat targeting this species. This species can be secretive but conditions were conducive to finding them. A breeding population likely exists on the property, but densities are probably low.

Significance of Common Kingsnake Observation
The common king snake has the second-most limited range of any snake living in Oregon. The species has been observed on a few occasions in the Applegate Valley but, otherwise, it lives in the Rogue River valley of Jackson and Josephine Counties with an isolated population persisting east of Roseburg in Douglas County. The species is considered “Sensitive – Vulnerable” in the state of Oregon. Colin Guiley has searched for snakes in southern Oregon for over 25 years and the individual found in this survey was the first he has seen in the state. The observation of a juvenile confirms that the species is breeding on the property. Colin Guiley and I believe that the property probably represents one of the best remaining habitats for this species in southern Oregon. There is abundant cover, food, and room for dispersal at the site. The connectivity the property has to the adjoining park is also critical for a species like the common kingsnake to persist in the region over time.

Issues As They Relate to Reptiles and Amphibians
The prevalence of Himalayan Blackberry at the site, especially on the edge of the floodplain forest south of the access road is probably affecting reptiles negatively. The blackberry can cover basking structures like logs and rocks, and favors edge habitats that are also favored by most snakes that live on the property.

Bullfrogs are probably affecting amphibian populations in a negative way on the property. These voracious predators can consume not only frogs and salamanders, but small snakes and turtles as well. It is possible that the property could house a population of Western Toad (species of concern) and/or Long-toed Salamander but neither species is likely to be present in areas of high bullfrog density.


Other species spotted at the Preserve:

Species: Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla)
Where Observed: Tadpoles observed in floodplain pools south of access road.
Status: Abundant in floodplain habitat.

Species: Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)
Where Observed: Tadpoles observed in floodplain pools south of access road.
Status: Abundant in floodplain habitat.

Species: Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)
Where Observed: Basking on railroad ties near entrance gate, on protruding rocks above middle terrace south of access road, under rocks flipped on middle terrace north of access road.
Status: Abundant wherever basking structures are present

Species: Western Skink (Plestiodon skiltonianus)
Where Observed: Under logs in open buckbrush south of access road, under rocks on slope above middle terrace south of access road, under rocks and logs flipped on middle terrace north of access road.
Status: Abundant. Observed every time cover was flipped in areas where plenty of rocks and logs littered the ground.

Species: Southern Aligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata)
Where Observed: At base of buckbrush south of access road, south of access road on middle terrace near large log, near rock outcrop west of Rogue River slough on north end of property, juvenile seen along middle terrace slope north of access road.
Status: Common. Seen throughout the property but not flipped as often as expected.

Species: Pacific Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer)
Where Observed: One adult found under a large rotting log along east side of middle terrace south of access road, not far from property line.
Status: Likely Common. Although only one was observed, large rodent populations and varied cover led us to believe that the population of gopher snakes on the property was healthy.

Species: Mountain Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans elegans)
Where Observed: Two adults observed on edge of floodplain forest north of access road where the middle terrace meets the blackberry growing on the edge of the forest.
Status: Likely Common. Large numbers of frogs (Pacific Tree Frogs and Bullfrogs) along with varied cover and healthy riparian habitat probably supports a healthy population of this species.

Belly of the Mountain garter snake.

By Kristi Mergenthaler, Land Steward, Southern Oregon Land Conservancy

She was last seen foraging on lupine and Siskiyou mint in a wet meadow on Mt. Ashland in 2006.  She was exquisitely garbed in furry black, yellow, and white and observed carrying orange pollen baskets. The Franklin’s bumble bee was once common in northwest California and southwest Oregon, but now may be extinct.  The rapid decline of honeybees and monarch butterflies is widely reported by the media, but populations of many other pollinators are also declining including native bees.  Sadly, about one-third of bumble bee species may be threatened or critically endangered. 

Why should we care about bumble bees?  If you love mountain wildflowers and the birds that eat their seeds, you should care.  If you like to eat tomatoes, peppers and blueberries, you should care.  Eight percent of the world’s flowering plants depend solely on buzz pollination – a technique bumbles use to obtain pollen from partially closed flowers, like a monkshood flower; they buzz in the note of C against the petals to release pollen.  Imagine bumble music in the frequency of an electric toothbrush, and then, a rain of pollen.

Male bumble bees do not live in the all-female colonies and often sleep alone in flowers.  Imagine never having the chance to peer into a flower and be delighted by a sleeping bumble. 

The threats to bumble bees are overwhelming and include the usual suspects: habitat destruction and degradation, overuse of pesticides, conventional monoculture agriculture, the loss of hedgerows and un-mowed places, over-grazing, and even pathogens originating from the commercial bumble bee industry.

Well “Hope’ is the thing with feathers as Emily Dickinson wrote in a poem AND hope is also furry small buzzing bodies.  We all can help the bumble bee.  Here’s how:

  • Continue to support land conservation and restoration and promote smart development that reduces and mitigates for further habitat fragmentation. 
  • Support organic farms, farms that use integrated pest management, and farmers that plant or retain pollinator habitat.  Thank your farmer for promoting pollinator health.
  • Control noxious invasive weeds that threaten natural areas and reduce flowering plant biodiversity.
  • Reduce or halt the use of insecticides, especially for aesthetic purposes.
  • Be a citizen scientist and participate in Bumble Bee Watch: http://bumblebeewatch.org/.
  • Ask plant nurseries and retailers to not sell plants treated with neonicotinoids, a persistent insecticide especially toxic to pollinators.  Buy insecticide-free flowers from local nurseries.
  • And lastly, plant lots of flowers, preferably native plants arranged in clumps of individual species. The City of Portland published Garden Smart as a guide to alternative choices to common invasive garden plants to help inspire homeowners in their gardening plans.

Choose flowers that bloom resources from early spring to late summer such as early flowering shrubs like Oregon-grape, white-leaf manzanita, and flowering current for the hungry queen bumble bees emerging from hibernation.  Add late-flowering plants like aster, sagebrush, rabbitbrush and goldenrod.  Include some bunchgrasses which provide overwintering sites for solo queens.  And if possible, leave bare patches, brush piles and unmaintained areas for overwintering and nesting sites.  Rip up a part of your lawn and plant more drought-tolerant flowers and try to be tolerant of lawn weeds like dandelion and clover.  If you can, also plant milkweed for monarchs and bees.  And join us in hoping for a report of a Franklin’s bumble bee sighting in the near future.

This is an excerpt from Terra Firma Times, a newsletter of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy. Go here to see the rest of the Summer 2014 newsletter: http://www.landconserve.org/content/back-issues-terra-firma-times.

The Land Conservancy recently announced a new conservation easement: 160 acres on the Siskiyou Crest, situated just a short distance west of where Interstate-5 crosses the summit.  This wooded property is perched on the western slope of Ogden Hill, and – like a larger extent of adjacent forested land on Ogden Hill – it’s long been owned by the Parsons family (of Medford’s Hillcrest Orchards and Roxy Ann Winery).    Where is Ogden Hill?  Driving I-5 southward, heading up and out of the Rogue Valley, the ascending grade of pavement hugs the northeast slope of Ogden Hill – a 5,800-foot-high, round-topped, densely forested “hump.”

Never heard of Ogden Hill?  You’re not alone.  It’s a relatively new geographic name (approved by the U.S. Geographic Names Board in the early 2000s), and it’s still not yet shown on some recent maps.  However, the name Ogden itself goes back to the earliest recorded/written history of southern Oregon.  Ogden Hill commemorates the arrival at Siskiyou Pass in February 1827 of hardy fur trader Peter Skene Ogden.  Ogden was the first “White” (or EuroAmerican) to see and explore the Rogue River Valley.  Born 1790 in Quebec to a prominent “Loyalist” family (whose New Jersey estates were confiscated by the successful rebels during the American Revolution), he joined the far-flung Canadian fur trade out of Montreal as a very young man. 

As a “Chief Trader” of the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company, between 1824 and 1830 Ogden led six winter-time beaver-trapping brigades from Ft. Vancouver (located across the Columbia from present-day Portland) into the vast unexplored lands to the south and east.  Peter Ogden is regarded by many historians of the American West as one of the region’s first-ranked explorers.  During these exhausting and dangerous horse-mounted forays, Ogden -- with his French-Canadian and Iroquois trappers (and their Indian wives) – “discovered” such places as eastern Oregon’s Malheur River and Harney Basin, northern Nevada’s Humboldt River, our very own Rogue River, as well as both Mt. McLoughlin and Mt. Shasta.  (The namesake of Ogden, Utah, some of his trappers may have been the first Whites to behold Great Salt Lake.)  Truly an accomplished traveler!

In early February 1827 Ogden approached Siskiyou Pass from the south, having spent the previous week or more descending along the canyon of the Klamath River from the site of present-day Klamath Falls.  At the mouth of Cottonwood Creek (near present-day Hornbrook) he turned north, having been told by his “Sastise” (Shasta) Indian guides about a large, beaver-rich river located to the north of the snowy ridge that was visible to them in the distance (i.e., the Siskiyou Crest).  We know from Ogden’s nightly journal that he and his brigade struggled, up the headwaters of Cottonwood Creek drainage, to the summit of Siskiyou Pass on February 8.  While stopped there, he attempted to climb what he called a “high hill” so as to obtain a view to the north.  The most likely candidate for this ascent is today’s Ogden Hill, which rises just to the west of the historic pass.

From Siskiyou Pass, Ogden then descended Hill Creek or (more likely) Carter Creek to the present vicinity of Emigrant Lake.  While exploring the Rogue River country during February-April of 1827, Ogden praised its mild climate (he had arrived during one of our region’s mid-February “false Springs”), expressed astonishment at the valley’s towering ponderosa and sugar pines and its massive-trunked California black oaks (both species were new to him), established friendly relations with the local Natives, and he predicted the area would someday prove fine for farming and livestock ranching.

Almost 175 years later, in 2000, Jud Parsons, a long-time SOLC member who’s interested in and knowledgeable about local history, and I joined forces to prepare a geographic names proposal for the essentially as-yet unnamed, but prominent hill (it had been shown on an early 20th-century map or two as “Bald Mountain” – one of literally dozens of identically named places in Oregon!).  Between 1812 and 1850 Peter Ogden played a major role in the history of the Pacific Northwest; it seems fitting that a prominent, often snow-crusted hill -- one that he likely actually climbed that wintry February day as he crossed Siskiyou Pass -- should be named for him.

For a short biographic sketch of Peter Ogden, consult the on-line Oregon Encyclopedia of History and Culture, at: http://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/ogden_peter_skene/#.VLrNLdLF9ic    )

Jeff LaLande is an archaeologist, historian, and a proud member of SOLC.



Photo from ibis.geog.ubc.ca

Do you value rarity? If so, is it the money? Rare coins and stamps can be valuable.  Is it possession... having something unique few others have?  Or could it be inherent appreciation of the tenacious few that survive the vagaries of time? Regardless of your value system, the rare are the tails of the “normal” distribution, and often disproportionately demand attention (one commonly used example is the super-rich). Alaska-yellow forest stands surviving by a whisker in Southwest Oregon are an example of our unheralded valued, tenacious tails.  I offer some consideration.

First of all, there are at least six genera that have species that are commonly called cedar (Chamaecyparis, Juniperus, Thuja, Calocedrus, libocedrus, and Cupressus). Alaska-yellow-cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, ranges from southern Alaska, along the cool, wet, coast of Canada, decreasing in abundance southward into the Klamath geological province of Southwestern Oregon and Northern California. Here it is widely scattered, confined to glacial cirques, cool, wet concavities carved by glaciers during our last ice age. Their environment is harsh.  Our high elevation cirques are cold and much dryer than the coast of British Columbia. Alaska-yellow has evolved a genetic complement to withstand this stress, but is losing ground to competitors as the climate warms.

The stands I have monitored as a US Forest Service ecologist are very slowly regenerating.  That’s a good thing.  But tanoak is becoming more plentiful since it becomes more efficient and competitive as temperatures increase.  There is a possibility we may be losing a rare and valued genetic variety associated with our southern Oregon environment. Should we try to keep these diverse “tails”?  .          

If Alaska-cedar’s decline is just a part of the natural succession process, maybe we should leave well enough alone.  Stress and competition are and always have been, the tools selecting the fittest.  That strategy shares some similarity to our “death with dignity” laws.  But, if in some way we have changed mortality rates or otherwise interfered with “natural” processes, shouldn’t we get involved?  Should we value our local Alaska-cedar like a rare painting? 

Natural processes are becoming more rare or even extinct, unless we finally accept that humans are a natural participant in our ecosystems, even if only indirectly.  Just like every other animal we are susceptible to diseases, climatic extremes, and competition for resources. That said, it is incumbent upon all of us to engage with informed choices about what we value, whether rare or common.  Choices based on science and understanding are likely to serve us (including our rare Alaska-yellow) well in the short and long run.

At the Land Conservancy we participate with our community, which is an integral part of our local ecosystem, looking for opportunities to secure rare and essential pieces and species.  Alaska-yellow will also be participating; we know how to make that happen.     

Side note:  I have collected Alaska-yellow seed for Kew Botanic Gardens the world's largest collection of living plants.  They have seed collected from sites in Alaska through California, the common and the rare.

For identification purposes, here are close-up photos of Alaska-yellow-cedar (first below) to compare with Port-Orford-cedar both of which look similar from a far.

Foliage of Alaska-yellow-cedar. (Photo from Oregon State University)

Foliage of Port-Orford-cedar (Photo from Oregon State University)

Bark of the Alaska-yellow-cedar (Photo from Oregon State University)

Bark of Port-Orford-cedar (Photo from Oregon State University)

By Dr. Tom Atzet a retired US Forest Service Forest Ecologist and Land Conservancy Board Member

Arnold Schwarzenegger, five time Mr. Universe title Steven J_ Baskauf, bioimages_vanderbilt_eduholder and former California governor, starred with Danny DeVito, a fantastic actor (“Throw Mama from the Train”), director and producer in “Twins”.  Twins?  Frankly, Danny is in no way a body builder type, is a bit squat, and could not have come from the same pregnancy with Arnie, and maybe he is not even the same species.  They are as different as coast redwood (tall and mighty) is from Pacific yew (minuscule and introverted).   Yet, like Arnie and Danny I have always thought of these disparate trees as kindred twins.  Both are ancient conifers, have similar leaf structure, can stump sprout, and are extremely shade tolerant.  But, their major similarities end there.

My relating them as twins because I was their advocate over much of my career. Like most governors and actors, both redwood and yew have experienced crises.  For Pacific yew (my focus here) its crisis was taxol.   I first learned of taxol in 1978 from a chance meeting at the Eight Dollar Mountain Darlingtonia (cobra lily) fen near Selma, Oregon.  Two drug scientists from the National Cancer Institute were looking for sites occupied by Pacific yew.  They knew it inhabited cool, moist sites (like bogs, fens, and stream-sides) but it seldom occurred in pure, high density populations anywhere.  Such stands were what they were seeking.  An estimated 360,000 trees per year would be needed for their research.  Although I told them I could provide specific locations, I never heard from them again. "Yew bark Taxol PD" by Original uploader was CatherineMunro at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yew_bark_Taxol_PD.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Yew_bark_Taxol_PD.jpg

By the late 1980s, yew bark was in high demand because it was the primary source for taxol, a miracle drug for fighting breast and ovarian cancer.  Thieves were indiscriminately and illegally stripping yew bark for the taxol black market.  More discriminately, agencies were asked to supply several hundred thousand pounds of bark per year, producing a potential threat to the tree’s survival.  However, saving an estimated 16,000 lives per year was in the balance (bark from a single tree could produce about one dose). 

As Federal agencies, universities and research scientists quickly formed a team to assure yew’s continued existence, the drug companies were exploring cheaper nursery and synthetic sources.  Several individuals on our team personally had friends that could medically benefit.   We felt ethically obligated to develop a mutually acceptable source and harvest strategy that would save lives, trees and ecosystem integrity, now and in the long run. 

We sent a wide-ranging request for habitat and behavioral data to scientists throughout its suspected range.   Within two months we received over a dozen full floppy disks.

Our local southwestern Oregon data, collected in the 1970s, indicated it took more than 50 years for yew to re-establish itself after an intense fire or harvest.  The additional data covering Alaska to San Francisco validated its sluggish, uncertain recovery.  Although it is only one of two or three conifers that can stump sprout, taking so long can allow competitors to exclude it.  Our concern was habitat loss to other more aggressive species, and a resulting decreased range.

As we evaluated the effects of the intense bark stripping, we gained a new appreciation for yew’s resilience.  Even with only 10 percent of the bark left, connecting its cambium from the root to crown, it struggled, but survived.  Additionally, it has a type of undifferentiated cells, like stem cells, that provide for healing.  Its high alkaloid content, like its redwood twin, makes it remarkably resistant to insects and diseases.

Most trees are either male or female.  The sexes are difficult to tell apart, for us, but a combination of sexual and vegetative reproduction has provided evolutionary adaptations that have allowed the species to exist and leisurely flourish for hundreds of millions of years.  Yew is likely to continue to have a bright future.  Its contribution to fighting cancer will always be appreciated.   It is not showy or garish, but it achieved stardom for quite a noble cause.     

Our team completed an ecological strategy and field plan at about the same time as a synthetic alternative was developed (about 1992).  Everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief.  It survived the crisis, and today maintains its special place in the ecosystem as a slow and deliberate performer.  All in all, it may be small (the largest is approximately 60 feet tall) but together with the large and showy redwood, it has performed well for the last several hundred million years.

Seattle's largest Pacific Yew tree; photo by ALJ.jpg

Once upon a time—let’s say about 400 million years ago—long before any humans lived on Earth, long before there were any bears or birds or butterflies, long before there were even any dinosaurs—in those far away times this part of Oregon looked a lot different.  In fact, Oregon did not even exist, which means that Southern Oregon was part of the ocean!  The nearest major land was far to the east, in Idaho, located on the western edge of North America.

Even so, out here in the ocean there were lots of rocky islands.  They may have looked like the islands that we call Indonesia today.  Some had volcanoes erupting on them.  These islands were creeping very, very slowly toward Idaho, on a collision course that would eventually smash them against North America millions of years later.

However, before that big collision happened, most of the islands first ran into one another.  As a result, many islands, plus some of the ocean floor surrounding them, got smashed together.  These slow smash-ups caused lots of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and some of the islands even got pulled deep into the Earth beneath other islands.  This squished them very badly.  Our name for islands and ocean floor that have been smashed and squished together is a terrane.  Over time, a number of these ancient terranes were themselves smashed and squished together to form one huge island that we call the Klamath Terrane.

About 160 million years ago, during Jurassic time, something important happened to the Klamath Terrane: Inside it great underground blobs of white-hot magma melted their way upwards.  Possibly some of these blobs erupted out as volcanoes on the Klamath Terrane’s surface.  In any case, after a long time the white-hot magma cooled off, which caused it to harden into a pale-colored rock called granite.  We call these giant blobs of granite rock, plutons.  Plutons are big; they can be miles thick and many miles wide.

Next, over millions of years, rain and wind completely eroded away any of the Jurassic volcanoes that might have been here and gradually wore the Klamath Terrane down and down and down, until at last the granite plutons themselves lay exposed at the surface of the land.  Today, Mt. Ashland is the exposed top of our local pluton, while the granite rocks of Oredson-Todd Woods are part of one side of that same pluton.

Finally, about 140 million years ago, in Cretaceous time, the entire Klamath Terrane, along with the granite plutons inside it, slowly collided with North America and joined with it.  In fact, the Klamath Terrane is still here today.  This part of it is called the Siskiyou Mountains.

So, that is how the terranes and plutons of our part of Oregon came to be, long, long ago.  Altogether, many islands and a lot of ocean floor became smashed and squished together to make these Siskiyou Mountains.  But that was just the first chapter of our geologic story.  There were more chapters to come!

fossilsAround 90 million years ago, in Cretaceous time, the Pacific ocean became deeper, allowing salty ocean water to move in and submerge the Ashland area.  Where Oredson-Todd Woods is located today, imagine a shallow sea lapping against the granite pluton.  Clams and snails and coil-shelled ammonites lived beneath those waves.  Fishes undoubtedly swam here, too, and probably giant, sharp-toothed sea reptiles called ichthyosaurs, as well.  Pterosaur reptiles flew in the sky.  (And there may also have been dinosaurs living on land nearby, although no one has found any dinosaur bones or teeth to prove it.)

Many mountains stood near this shallow sea, and mud and sand washed down from them to form underwater layers.  Millions of seashells became buried in the mud and sand.  These layers later hardened into beds of mudstone and sandstone and the buried seashells became fossils.  We call these 90-million-year-old rocks the Hornbrook Formation.  They can be seen in various parts of Southern Oregon, including the greenish and tan rock layers at Oredson-Todd Woods.

Many more millions of years went by as a new chapter in our story began.  The shallow Cretaceous sea dried up, and by 50 million years ago, in Eocene time, this part of Oregon was dry land once more.  Although by this time all the dinosaurs on Earth had become extinct, there were still no humans on the planet.  In our area, flooding Eocene rivers dumped new layers of sand and stones on top of the Cretaceous Hornbrook layers, and in swampy places lots of green plants lived and died, leaving behind thin beds of coal (found near Phoenix).

The Payne Cliffs

All this 50-million-year-old rock material is called the Payne Cliffs Formation (pictured above).  Pompadour Bluff, in the Bear Creek Valley, is made of it.  You can pick up smooth, rounded Payne Cliffs stones near the water slide at Emigrant Lake County Park.

The next chapter of our story, which began about 35 million years ago, in Oligocene time, involves lots of violent volcanic eruptions!  The volcanoes rumbled and shook and blew out huge amounts of lava and ash that buried the Payne Cliffs rocks.  We call these volcanoes the Western Cascades.  You can see their rocks along the Dead Indian Memorial Road.  About 20 million years ago, in Miocene time, one of these violent eruptions built up a big volcano close to Ashland—making this a very dangerous place to live in those days!  Although part of this big volcano has since eroded away, what remains of it has been named Grizzly Peak.  Today, all of the old Western Cascades volcanoes, including Grizzly Peak, are dead—unable to erupt any more.

Nevertheless, a final chapter in our story, with even more volcanoes, was still to come!  Beginning around 5 million years ago, in Pliocene time, lava and volcanic ash again erupted from the earth and built up new mountain peaks on top of the Western Cascades.  The very youngest of these new volcanoes—only about half a million years old—are called the High Cascades.  They include Mt. McLoughlin, Mt. Shasta, and the collapsed caldera named Crater Lake.  In fact, some High Cascades volcanoes (such as Mt. Shasta) are still alive and able to erupt! 

Only at the very end of this geologic story did people come here to live.  The first people were Native Americans, who lived here for thousands of years.  After that came immigrants who built a town called Ashland.  Finally, some nice people set aside the Oredson-Todd Woods as a fun place for everyone to visit.

[Editor's note: Vern Crawford, naturalist and amazing long-term SOLC volunteer, wrote a geologic story of the Bear Creek Valley as background and inspiration for our geology field station “River Rock Hounds” part of our Loving the Land Environmental Education program for 4th and 5th graders at Oredson-Todd Woods in Ashland.  We hope you enjoy this fine true story.]

During the holidays you may be hanging mistletoe in doorways in anticipation of a kiss.  Or perhaps on a winter drive looking out the window you notice leafless oak trees full of green mistletoe balls and wonder if the mistletoe is harming the trees.

So, is mistletoe a kiss or a curse?

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite or partial parasite: a green plant that makes food from sunlight and also steals water and nutrients from tree cambium through root-like structures called haustoria. 

Another local hemiparasite you may be familiar with is Indian paintbrush.

Mistletoe - a kiss or a curseThere are many species of mistletoe, but the oak mistletoe commonly growing in western white oak trees is known as Phoradendron – meaning tree thief.  Oak mistletoe (Phoradendron villosum) is actually a native plant which has co-evolved with other animals and plants in oak woodlands.

The ripe mistletoe fruits provide critical winter food for birds like American robin, cedar waxwing, Townsend’s solitaire, and the declining western bluebird.  After eating the fruit the undigested material is excreted by birds as a sticky dropping which glops onto branches for future germination.  Dwarf mistletoe, which grows in needle-leaf trees, is also important for wildlife, supplying shelter and nesting sites for threatened animals such as spotted owls, pine martins and goshawks. 

If your objective is to grow tall straight trees for harvest, or if you manage an orchard, mistletoe species can be a management challenge.

Some oak trees that are infected with mistletoe may have branches that break earlier than if the branch was uninfected, but there is not much evidence that mistletoe will significantly harm healthy oak trees.

In fact, removing mistletoe by pruning too many branches or cutting out clumps can potentially hurt trees.

The Druids admired mistletoe because it rooted close to heaven.  Fridda, the Norse Goddess of Love, gave kisses to people under mistletoe to celebrate her revived son who was slain by a European mistletoe arrow.  Mistletoe is a symbol of renewal and peace in many cultures and provides food and habitat for our animal neighbors.  So kiss away, but please keep in mind the true curse: mistletoe berries are poisonous to humans.