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

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.

The Colestin Valley-Siskiyou Summit area has been selected by the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy as one of its top priority areas for conservation.  The area has incredible biodiversity and is part of an important “land bridge” between the Cascades and Siskiyou Mountains. We are working with several private property owners in the focus area to protect land with exceptional habitat values, open spaces and working lands (ranches, farms and forests).

Staff Member Craig Harper visits a protected property in the Colestin Valley.

Currently the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy protects about 235 acres in the Colestin Valley.  An additional 200-acre property has been left to the Land Conservancy through a bequest.  The Land Conservancy also conserved a 1,300-acre property on the east side of I-5 (eastern end of the Siskiyou Summit) and is working on two projects on Mt. Ashland Ski Road; both of these projects will be completed within the next six months.

Much of the Colestin Valley - Siskiyou Summit focus area lies in or near the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and is in the Siskiyou-Crest/Soda Mountain area of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Oregon Conservation Strategy.  Key species in this area identified in the Conservation Strategy include: great gray owl, spotted owl, and Pacific fisher.

This area is also identified in two Oregon Important Bird Areas as well as The Nature Conservancy Eco-regional Assessment for the Siskiyou Crest and Soda Mountain.  The focus area contains Very Sensitive Winter Deer and Elk habitat, and is rich with oak woodlands and other rare plant communities.

The Colestin Valley-Siskiyou Summit area is unique and vitally important for conservation in the Rogue region.

This winter we will host small gatherings in the Colestin to discuss different conservation options for landowners.  If you are interested in attending, contact the Land Conservancy’s Conservation Project Manager, Craig Harper.

Even the wildlife knew we were up to something good.

Not long after beginning a conservation project to protect 122 beautiful acres along Clear Creek near Selma, Oregon, we received this email from landowners Jim Gurley and Dr.Kathy Mechling : “Even though our land isn’t conserved yet, the critters seem to know anyway. Last week a big herd of elk bashed through, and then yesterday morning while walking the dogs, we spotted a big salmon in the creek, and it was beingchased by 2 big otters!

Kathy and Jim are devoted naturalists. While Kathy is looking for rare snails and setting up wildlife cameras on the property, Jim identifies flowers and recently made a discovery on the property: juvenile coho salmon in Clear Creek!

In July, Jim and Kathy finalized a conservation agreement with the Land Conservancy - forever protecting Clear Creek and the land surrounding it as a special refuge for wildlife. Clear Creek, a perennial stream, flows across 3,000 feet of the property and drains into Deer Creek, a major tributary of the Illinois River. It is a haven for wildlife and diverse plants. According to Rich Nawa, a fisheries biologist, it is one of the healthiest valley floor riparian areas he has seen in the Illinois Valley.

Earlier this year, another exceptional critter was discovered. Kathy, who studied worm evolution in graduate school, found an unfamiliar long sinuous worm. The worm was identified as a horsehair worm (Gordius robustus), the first reported occurrence of this species in Oregon for the Hairworm Biodiversity Project. The term “Gordius” refers to how the worms form tight balls, like Gordian knots, while mating in streams or ponds. The worm received some colorful local media attention as it also known as the “Zombie Worm.”

In addition to protecting zombie worm and salmon habitat, this project conserves valley floor oak woodlands, mixed evergreen forests, California oatgrass meadows (a rare and declining grassland), wetlands, and a rocky serpentine bald. Over 45 lichens and 220 flowering plants grow here, including a rare vine, Greenbriar. The high plant biodiversity may be explained by the rich mosaic of habitats, including an exemplary riparian area and diverse soils.

Kathy and Jim placed their property in conservation in July, protecting their precious land in perpetuity. Thanks to their commitment, the land, our members and supporters, and our greater community all benefit.

Selecting conservation focus areas is important for the Land Conservancy so that we use our resources wisely and protect lands that provide the greatest value to our community. As we work towards our VISION 20/20 goal of protecting 20,000 acres by 2020, the Land Conservancy Board of Directors recently approved these five specific geographic areas in Jackson and Josephine Counties to focus our acquisition and protection efforts in the coming years.

These focus areas contain the most important regions or resources for conservation. We based these priorities on careful deliberation, relying on the best available science and sound public policy to provide real public benefits. Focusing our efforts on the most important areas in our region will open up greater opportunities for reaching our VISION 20/20 goal and protecting the highest priority conservation value land. To learn more or to read the Conservation Plan, Click Here.

Colestin Valley
Conservation Project Manager Craig Harper visiting a conserved property in the Colestin Valley.

Colestin Valley – Siskiyou Summit
Located in southern Jackson County west of Interstate 5 near the border of Oregon and California, the Colestin Valley – Siskiyou Summit focus area is on the edge of three ecoregions, the Great Basin, Cascades, and Klamath-Siskiyou.  This focus area was selected because of its spectacular biological diversity. 

The Colestin Valley and Siskiyou Summit are part of a relatively high-elevation land bridge, or saddle, between the young, volcanic Cascades and the ancient, metamorphic Siskiyou Mountains.  This area provides habitat for a large number of species on the edge of their range, forming rare communities and species interactions, and the land bridge serves as a vital corridor for wildlife and plant migration. 

The area is listed in several other planning documents including the American Fisheries Society Aquatic Diversity Areas, Oregon’s Important Bird Areas (Siskiyou Peak, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument), and The Nature Conservancy’s Ecoregional Assessment (Siskiyou Crest site, Soda Mountain site).  About half of the focus area lies within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, and the Pacific Crest Trail laces through the area.  

The focus area contains several key habitats including:

  • Aquatic
  • Grasslands and Oak Savannah
  • Late Successional Mixed Conifer Forests
  • Pine-oak Woodlands
  • Wetlands

Key species of concern in the focus area are:

  • Siskiyou Mountains Salamander
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Great Gray Owl
  • Northern Spotted Owl
  • Willow Flycatcher
  • Jenny Creek Sucker
  • Pacific Fisher

Cascade Foothills and the Payne Cliffs
The Cascade Foothills contain fantastic geologic features like the Payne Cliffs, a remnant of historic rivers, which flowed through Southern Oregon millions of years ago.

Cascade Foothills
These sparsely-developed, mixed-elevation foothills east of I-5 and the Bear Creek valley provide a diversity of habitats for both terrestrial and aquatic species.  The Cascade Foothills focus area stretches from the Rogue-Klamath basin divide along Highway 66 east of Ashland to the foothills east of Medford, and includes the Greensprings, Pompadour Bluff, Grizzly Peak, Payne Cliffs, Baldy, and Roxy Ann Peak. 

Numerous streams flow out of these foothills into the Bear Creek, including Emigrant, Walker, Gaerky, Kitchen, Butler, Myer, Kenutchen, Larson and Lazy Creeks.  The primary land uses are open space and agriculture ¬– ranching on the dry southwest-facing slopes, and irrigated farming on the valley floor – with limited forestry in the uplands.

Key habitats in this focus area include:

  • Aquatic
  • Grasslands And Oak Savannah
  • Pine-oak Woodlands
  • Riparian
  • Wetlands

Key species of concern are:

  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Lewis’ Woodpecker
  • White-headed Woodpecker
  • Coho Salmon
  • Summer Steelhead

Little Butte Creek
Little Butte Creek is a 17-mile long tributary of the Rogue River, draining approximately 373 square miles of land.

Little Butte Creek
This area, located northeast of Medford and east of the Rogue River, contains much of the region’s pine-oak woodland and oak savannah habitat, and is the stronghold of coho salmon spawning and rearing in the upper Rogue River Basin.  The area is home to some of the largest and most productive ranches in the region, and has been featured prominently in numerous other planning documents including The Nature Conservancy’s Ecoregional Assessment (Cascade foothills, Little Butte Creek), and The Oregon Plan - Core Salmon Areas (Antelope Creek, Little Butte Creek).  Despite chronic water quality problems in Little Butte Creek, a senior water right held by the Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point generally ensures a minimum flow of at least 30 cubic feet per second at the mill, which is near the mouth of the stream.  This late summer flow in Little Butte Creek helps reduce salmon mortality, especially in drought years.

Key habitats in this focus area include:

  • Aquatic
  • Grasslands And Oak Savannah
  • Pine-oak Woodlands
  • Riparian
  • Wetlands

Key species of concern are:

  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Lewis’ Woodpecker
  • White-headed Woodpecker
  • Coastal Cutthroat
  • Coho Salmon
  • Summer Steelhead
  • Common Kingsnake

Agate desert
The Agate Desert is a relatively flat part of the Rogue River Valley.  It features views of Mt. McLoughlin, in addition to some tiny rare and endemic plants.

Rogue – Agate Desert
This unique area, comprising a low-gradient reach of the Rogue River and its surrounding lands from Shady Cove to Gold Hill, contains some of the most iconic landscapes in Southern Oregon – the Table Rocks, the Gold Ray Natural Area (former Gold Ray Dam and reservoir), and the Agate Desert, which features the largest extent of vernal pool habitat in Oregon.  These vernal pools are home to species found nowhere else, and host the Federally-listed vernal pools fairy shrimp (Threatened) and two rare, Endangered plants – Cook’s lomatium and the large-flowered woolly meadowfoam. 

This important low elevation habitat also includes the Denman Wildlife Area, and is an important site for migrating and nesting waterfowl.  Riparian habitat quality in this part of the Rogue is extremely high – the largest and second largest riparian hardwood gallery forests in the Rogue above Galice lie in this reach – and, although fish numbers are far less than historical levels, the river remains a thriving sport fishery. 

This area is also mentioned in several other planning documents including the Oregon Biodiversity Project Conservation Opportunity Areas, Oregon’s Important Bird Areas (Denman Wildlife Area, Table Rocks, Whetstone Savannah), and The Nature Conservancy’s Ecoregional Assessment.

Key habitats in this focus area include:

  • Aquatic
  • Grasslands And Oak Savannah
  • Riparian
  • Wetlands

Key species of concern are:

  • Horned Lark
  • Purple Martin
  • Meadowlark
  • Other upland birds and waterfowl
  • Spring and Fall Chinook Salmon
  • Coho Salmon
  • Summer and Winter Steelhead
  • Fairy Shrimp

Illinois River in Oregon
The Illinois River Valley is notable for its scenic beauty.

Upper Illinois River
This area is noted for its abundance of rare and endemic plant species, many of which grow in the area’s serpentine soils.  Serpentine soils are derived from ultramafic rocks, in particular serpentinite, and give rise to unusual and sparse associations of plants that are tolerant of extreme soil conditions, including lack of essential nutrients and high concentrations of metals.

The area also includes approximately one-third of the region’s wetland habitat, and contains diverse low- and mid-elevation forests and unique grassland habitats.  This area is identified in several other planning documents including the American Fisheries Society Aquatic Diversity Areas, Oregon Biodiversity Project Conservation Opportunity Areas, The Nature Conservancy’s Ecoregional Assessment, and The Oregon Plan Core Salmon Areas.

Key habitats in this focus area include:

  • Aquatic
  • Grasslands And Oak Savannah
  • Riparian
  • Wetlands

Key species of concern are:

  • Lewis’ Woodpecker
  • Coho Salmon
  • Fall Chinook Salmon
  • Winter Steelhead
  • Common Kingsnake

Hikers who walk the southwest side of Mt. Ashland toward the Willamette Meridian near McDonald basin can’t help but notice the bare, raveling “soils”.  Struggling vegetation grows, no, barely survives, anchored in sterile dirt, derived from infertile granitic geology (the photo below shows one such area in the distance from the Pacific Crest Trail).

These barrens weren’t always this way.  They had help.  Gold was indirectly involved.

Like the Jacksonville gold-bearing granitic geology, Mt. Ashland, about 150 million years old, also contain gold deposits. Dreams of untold and told riches inspired miners to migrate north to the Siskiyous, soon after the initial California gold rush.  While these miners persisted on beans, mutton was also a staple.  Thus, sheep, affectionately known as range maggots, became the most abundant summer megafauna from mid-1870 to about 1924. That’s over 50 years!

Maggots will eat anything; range maggots have a similar reputation.  All vegetation was fair game.

No one knows their exact number. Nodding off before completing the count was common.  That is why a ratio of one black ewe per 100 sheep was maintained.  Although multiplying by 100 made estimates easier, when the local herds peaked at over 100,000, counting became the least of the problems.

Hundreds of thousands of sheep were grazed throughout the Cascades and Klamath mountains.  They concentrated where food and water were available and slowly but surely increased the size of the original opening. Herders helped by setting fires as they removed their herds for winter.  Core meadows were enlarged, forests were burned back, and the naturally shallow soils were disturbed and compacted. 

By 1924 when herds were reduced and removed, the range lands were badly depleted.  Much of the land once covered by large Shasta red fir were then barren and raveling or being invaded by pussypaws (pictured, left).  One forest report remarked that the fire lookouts were taught to distinguish between smoke and the dusk caused by the moving sheep herds.  Overuse is never a pretty picture, but ecosystems have a deep capacity for recovery.  

High elevation coarse granitic soils are not only relatively sterile, but they transfer heat poorly.  Thus, diurnal surface temperatures easily vary from below freezing at night to over 150 degrees during the hottest part of the afternoon.  Most young delicate plants, including tree seedlings, cannot tolerate these extremes.  Large stones that store daytime heat and release heat at night can make a life and death difference.  Next time you are hiking the area, notice that much of the recovery centers around rock outcrops.  The rocks also discourage the root-eating gophers.  Tunneling through rock can be a problem.

Moreover, coarse granitic soils are well known for a low water storage capacity and are not much of a reservoir for new plants trying to make a home.  Water availability in Southwest Oregon is the most limiting factor for survival and growth. At high elevation, however, temperature can be the most common cause of death.  Because of the temperature extremes and lack of water, soon after the rains stop, the growing season is only a day and a half (just kidding).  But, it is short, and recovery is slow.

Recovery very gradually occurs from the forest edge into the meadows where temperatures and water loss are modified by the nearby canopy.  Pussy-paws, aggressively starts the recolonization.  Lupine, its fearless partner (I have dug up small lupine that had roots to 50 inches) follows.  They begin adding organic material that moderates temperatures, increases water storage capacity, and slowly increases soil fertility. Buckwheat, that requires the moderation by pussy-paws and lupine, adds stability and nutrition allowing manzanita and ceanothus, a nitrogen fixer, to follow.  Finally, Shasta red fir, benefiting from its entrepreneurial associates finds a home among the recovering forest.  

Fully recovered, maybe after another century, there will be meadows, more stable barrens, sheep will not be the most dominant hoofed animal, and Shasta red fir, with scattered mountain hemlock, will dominate a more continuous forest landscape.

-Tom Atzet

Dr. Tom Atzet worked as an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service for 29 years.  He is now retired and lives in Merlin.

[Editor's Note: The original posting referred to sheep grazing happening on the Siskiyou Crest over 150 years.  That was inaccurate and has been corrected.]