Category Archives: Habitats

Bill McNamara is Glen Ellen’s ‘Indiana Jones’ of rare plants 

Meg McConahey, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

“When the plants go extinct, the animals that depend on them go extinct. And it’s completely ignored,” [McNamara] said. “Most biologists who are aware of this are convinced that by the end of the century, if current trends continue, we will lose half of all animals and half of all plants will be gone.”

For a onetime landscaper from California, it was a Cinderella moment — standing beneath the glass vaulted ceiling of the Edwardian Lindley Hall in London, accepting one of the world’s highest honors in horticulture.

The crowd that applauded American Bill McNamara as he accepted the prestigious Veitch Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society on Feb. 22, included finely dressed members of England’s titled gentry and some of the biggest names in the botanical realm over which Great Britain still rules.

“It was such a big honor, it was a shock,” said McNamara, now comfortably back in his bluejeans at Quarryhill Botanical Garden, a refuge for rare and endangered Asian plants that he gathered himself from seed in wild and remote corners of China. In just 30 years, a mere baby in the world of botanical gardens, Quarryhill has come to be considered one of the most significant collections of its kind in the world, numbering close to 2,000 species plants in their natural form, unchanged by man through hybridization.

Read more at: Bill McNamara is Glen Ellen’s ‘Indiana Jones’ of rare plants | The Press Democrat

Filed under Habitats, Land Use

Baby salmon trickle back to Russian River waterways after a long absence

Stephen Nett, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After an absence of more than a decade, a trickle of salmon are finally finding their way back to Sonoma County streams, thanks to private landowners and a coalition of conservationists.

Roughly 22 million years ago, the fish we know as salmon evolved the complicated biology they needed to commute between inland freshwater streams and the open salty ocean. Thus began one of the most remarkable life cycle journeys known on the planet.

Two million years ago, on the ancient California coastline, the salmon would have found a perfect cold and clear waterway emptying into the Pacific near the mouth of today’s Russian River. Running a hundred miles back among high ridges and dense redwood forest, its widely branching network of creeks and tributaries made ideal habitat for the spawning fish and its young.

And that paleo-Russian River has been the salmon’s home ever since.

So it came as a shock in 2001 when naturalists, fishermen and the community discovered that the number of coho salmon counted returning to the Russian River, once totaling 100,000, had dwindled to only 5.

It was found that throughout the watershed, the populations had crashed, and the salmon were disappearing, stream by stream. By 2004, only 3 of 39 tributaries and creeks in the entire watershed held any coho at all.

This past December, in a quiet event out of public view, red-flushed mature coho salmon were once again found spawning in the tree-shaded upper reaches of Mill Creek west of Healdsburg, where they had been virtually absent for decades.

That small, exciting homecoming was no accident. It came after more than 10 years of study and planning, captive breeding and painstaking stream rehabilitation by a smorgasbord of local, state, and federal agencies, private groups, academic institutions, community coalitions and concerned individuals.

And the vital key and the unsung heroes of the salmon rescue, according to those involved, are some of the private landowners whose property surrounds Mill Creek. In a scene that’s playing out along hundreds of miles of streams and creeks across Sonoma County, individual landowners are proving to be the crucial link in bringing the salmon home again.

Read more at: Baby salmon trickle back to Russian River waterways after a long absence | The Press Democrat

Filed under Habitats, Water, Wildlife

California should take lead on wetlands protections

Op-Ed: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

When the president made good on a key campaign promise Tuesday to roll back federal environmental rules on wetlands, cheers went up across farmlands. The acronym meant little to city dwellers, but the promise to “repeal WOTUS” — a staple at Trump rallies — had secured much of the rural vote for Trump. Fearing rollbacks would weaken environmental protections for a state that has led the nation in environmental protections, Democratic legislators in Sacramento preemptively introduced a suite of legislation to “preserve” California.

WOTUS, or “waters of the U.S.,” refers to a rule intended to clarify the scope of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, which tries to keep pollutants out of drinking water and wetlands wet. The rule was developed after years of public comment and a lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court. In 2015, the Obama administration finalized the rule, which defined the extent of federal jurisdiction over small streams and tributaries.

The rule is particularly tricky to interpret in California because many streams and wetlands are ephemeral — they flow or are wet only immediately after it rains. Think arroyos in Southern California and vernal pools — seasonal ponds in small depressions with distinct plant and animal life — that dot the Central Valley.

Farmers and ranchers, of course, are not against clean water. But they object to rules that they say are impossible to interpret and that interfere with agricultural practices. The California Farm Bureau stepped in and has led the charge to roll back the rule.

The rhetoric on both sides has been escalating since long before the final rule was issued, particularly on the opposed side, after San Joaquin Valley farmer John Duarte was accused in 2012 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of damaging vernal pools when he plowed to plant wheat.

To fight the promised Trump rollback, California Democrats borrowed a move straight from the playbook of Scott Pruitt, who had sued the U.S. EPA 13 times and called for its destruction before Trump named him EPA administrator. State Senate Democratic leader Kevin de León of Los Angeles has introduced Senate Bill 49, which would use existing federal environmental law as the baseline for state law “so we can preserve the state we know and love, regardless of what happens in Washington.

”The California Farm Bureau welcomed the president’s executive order Wednesday as a rollback of confusing federal rules.

The chest bumping is good political theater, but California has the power to exert its authority over wetlands. The state already uses federal environmental law as a template for state law. And federal law largely leaves authority to the state.

The state needs to invest in institutional muscle at the State Water Resources Control Board to enforce rules that protect the environment from those who would fill wetlands and dump pollutants into streams or seasonal streambeds.

Californians know the value of wetlands in flood control and wildlife habitat. We all want clean water. If these are the priority state leaders say they are, the state should step up.

Source: California should take lead on wetlands protections – San Francisco Chronicle

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Habitats, Land Use, Water, Wildlife

Spring blooms with wildflowers in Sonoma County 

Jeanne Wirka, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Few spring sights in Sonoma County are as uplifting as the faces of the flowers that decorate our hillsides and valleys in a palette of lavenders and dark purples, creamy yellows and oranges, pinkish whites and everything in between. What we call the “early spring” wildflowers — like our delicate milkmaids and nodding shooting stars — actually begin to show up in the North Bay region in January and February, sometimes even December. Mid-March, however, is the main event. What better excuse to get outside with a sketchbook, or a camera, or just an appreciative eye.

Read more at: Spring blooms with wildflowers in Sonoma County | The Press Democrat

Filed under Habitats

Sonoma County Forests, Part Two: Changing woodlands

Arthur Dawson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series about the indigenous forests that blanket Sonoma County — their past, present and threats to their future.This is the second in a series of three stories about Sonoma County forests that will be published in Sonoma Outdoors.

Part 1: The history of Sonoma County forests, January

Part 2: Where our forests stand now, February

Part 3: Our forests’ future, March

The 2017 North Coast Forest Conservation Conference, “Growing Resilience,” will take place June 7-9 at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm, 7450 Steve Olson Lane, Forestville.

More information: Sonoma County Forest Conservation Working Group, sonomaforests.org

For the latest on the Sonoma County Vegetation map, visit sonomavegmap.org

Our forests “are undergoing a sea change,” observes Mark Tukman, founder of Tukman Geospatial, who is spearheading the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District’s development of a fine-scale vegetation map.

“I’ve spent over a year looking at aerial photos and coordinating field teams. Many of our oak woodlands are disappearing rapidly, transitioning to Douglas fir and California bay,” he said.

In many places this is visible at ground level — dead manzanitas scattered beneath oaks dying in the shade of Douglas firs — a century of change visible in a glance. Of course, oaks and firs represent just a few of our native trees. Sonoma County’s wide range of geology, soils, landforms and climate has been described as “where Alaska meets Mexico.” With 10 species of oaks and 19 conifers, our forests reflect this diversity.

Close up, they can seem infinitely complex. But if you pull back, larger patterns emerge. Moving west to east, conifers grow in parallel bands — Bishop pine along the cool coast, then redwoods, and finally Douglas fir reaching warmer areas far inland. Interspersed are woodlands of oak, bay, madrone and other hardwoods. There are no hard boundaries between any of these types — in fact mixed conifer-hardwood forests are more common than either alone.

By the early 20th century, forested lands had seen severe impacts. Logged-off tracts of redwood and Douglas fir were now brushy and crowded with young trees. Oak and madrone woodlands, leveled for firewood, had become grassland. Settlements replaced oak savannahs. By all indications, there were far less trees 100 years ago than today.

Read more at: The state of Sonoma County’s forests | The Press Democrat

Filed under Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Habitats

Sonoma County to spearhead plan to restore Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After living along the Laguna de Santa Rosa for decades, Joe Aggio and his family have grown accustomed to having their land swamped with water, as has been the case this year, the waterway swollen to its greatest extent in more than a decade.

But the floodplain around their dairy farm also has become much more of a nuisance over the years.

Aggio, 32, said the wetland around his farm between Occidental Road and Guerneville Road used to be manageable and clean, flooding in the winter before draining off so his family could grow crops to feed their cows. But the waterway has become increasingly plugged with sediment, invasive Ludwigia plants, garbage and other discarded items like shopping carts and couches, he said.

“It no longer flows. It no longer drains. It’s just a stagnant mess,” Aggio said. “We’ve lost crops because of it. We haven’t gotten crops in because of it … It’s become increasingly difficult to farm the land.”

So Aggio’s hopes were raised recently when Sonoma County Water Agency officials secured a grant to move forward with plans that could eventually help alleviate the challenges faced by his farm and other landowners along the 22-mile waterway.

With funds from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Water Agency and environmental groups are embarking on a massive planning effort to revitalize the watershed that stretches from Cotati north to Windsor and takes in rural areas east and west of Santa Rosa.

The watershed, which includes Mark West and Santa Rosa creeks and many other smaller streams and wetlands, has been altered significantly over generations by agricultural and urban development.

One result of its transformation is the Laguna now fills with more sediment than it once did, at times hampering its ability to drain floodwaters into the Russian River.

“If this happens over a very long period of time — we’re talking hundreds of years — that eventually will get to a point where it could back up drainage back into Santa Rosa, Cotati and Rohnert Park,” said Mike Thompson, assistant general manager of the county Water Agency. “This is well beyond our lifetimes, but if it keeps filling up like that, the storage and flood protection of the Laguna that naturally occurs is being taken away.”

Armed with $517,000 in state grant funds, the Water Agency and other groups expect to spend the next three years developing a comprehensive restoration plan for the watershed. Project partners include the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.

Read more at: Sonoma County to spearhead plan to restore Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Habitats, Land Use, Water, Wildlife

Louise Hallberg, Graton’s ‘Butterfly Lady,’ dies at 100

Nick Rahaim, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County lost a piece of history with the passing of Louise Hallberg on Saturday. She was 100 years old.

The lifelong Graton resident was affectionately known to decades of Oak Grove Elementary School students as “The Butterfly Lady.” Every year since the late 1980s, students at the school would take the 10-minute walk to the butterfly garden at Hallberg’s Victorian home, built by her grandfather around the turn of the 20th century.

“She was so sweet and so kind and she loved children,” said Ann Parnell, secretary at Oak Grove Elementary School and longtime Graton resident.

The butterfly garden got its start in when Hallberg’s mother, Della, planted the native Dutchman’s Pipe in the 1920s. The vine is the only plant on which the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly nests. Those butterflies had almost exclusive reign in the garden until Hallberg began to plant vines and flowers to attract other butterflies more than a half century later. This original planting makes the west county landmark one of the oldest butterfly gardens in the county.

Read more at: Louise Hallberg, Graton’s ‘Butterfly Lady,’ dies at 100 | The Press Democrat

Filed under Habitats, Wildlife

Winter is prime time for birdwatching in Northern California

Tracy Salcedo, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When winter strips the leaves from the Bay Area’s deciduous oaks, it does more than bring more light to a dark season. It also enables those enchanted by birds a better chance to see them, count them, and appreciate them.

This improved visibility is one of the reasons popular and productive citizens’ science birding events, such as the Christmas Bird Count (sponsored by the National Audubon Society) and the Great Backyard Bird Count (sponsored by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), are staged in winter. Those elusive little brown birds are easier to see and identify when they aren’t obscured by foliage, meaning counts are more accurate and provide a better gauge by which to measure the health of bird populations and the habitats that sustain them.

Birding, like wildflower blooms, newt migrations, butterfly and ladybug congregations, and displays of autumn foliage, offers walkers an opportunity to experience the Bay Area’s open lands in a new way. For the amateur, turning an eye to the sky opens the hiking experience to a higher plane. For safety’s sake, hikers focus on their feet, watching the trail so they don’t fall down. You’ve got to look up to find the birds, which means you must stop, and stopping results in discovery. The place may be old and familiar, but by pausing, looking up, and listening to the birdcall, you will see that place in a different way.

On the trails described below, amateur birders or those who are curious about birds are guaranteed to see a variety of species, from songbirds to shorebirds to raptors. These trails also offer opportunities for expert birders to check off another species on their life lists.

Read more at: Winter is prime time for birdwatching in Northern California | The Press Democrat

Filed under Habitats, Wildlife

Sonoma County Forests, Part 1: The history of Sonoma County’s woodlands

Arthur Dawson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The 2017 North Coast Forest Conservation Conference, “Growing Resilience,” will take place June 7-9 at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm, 7450 Steve Olson Lane, Forestville.

More info: Sonoma County Forest Conservation Working Group, sonomaforests.org.

Sonoma County’s early chronicles are full of praise for the trees and forests. In 1877, one writer described looking over “a sweep of majestic forests unsurpassed on the continent — tier upon tier, range upon range of redwoods.”

About half the county’s vegetation was forest and open woodland at that time according to estimates; the rest was a mix of grasslands, chaparral and wetlands. The dense redwood forests on the Russian River floodplain, where Guerneville now stands, were considered “the finest body of timber in the state.” One tree was 23 feet in diameter; another measured 368 feet high and, at the time, was “the tallest tree yet discovered in America.” These are just shy of modern records; we’ll never know if even bigger trees went unrecorded.

Jose Altimira was impressed by the huge valley oaks near the Sonoma Mission, which he founded in 1823. They grew in a roblar covering dozens of square miles. Not exactly a forest, roblar is Spanish for a place where oaks are prominent within a mosaic of grasslands and wetlands.

Englishman Frank Marryat later described traveling through Sonoma Valley like this: “It seems ever as if we were about to enter a forest which we never reach, for in the distance the oaks, though really far apart, appear to grow in dark and heavy masses.”

Because they were desirable places to settle — flat with some shade and water, but not too wet — most of our towns grew up in roblars.

The Wappo name for the Santa Rosa area is wici-lo-holma-noma, or “meadowlark woods,” suggesting both grassland and trees. Windsor was named for its resemblance to the oak-studded grounds of England’s Windsor Castle. Even today, 200-year-old oaks can be found in Santa Rosa and other areas, adding habitat and character to many neighborhoods.

Of course, the county is home to more than just redwoods and roblars. Altimira “fell in love” with the riparian forest of “alder, cottonwood and bay” along Sonoma Creek, and he mentioned “madrone, bay and Douglas fir in the hills.” As he noticed, our forests are complex and diverse. We have 10 native oaks, numerous other hardwoods and 19 conifers, nearly as many as the “Evergreen State” of Washington.

Read more at: The history of Sonoma County’s woodlands | The Press Democrat

Filed under Forests, Habitats

Superior Court sends controversial redwood floodplain logging plan back to CAL FIRE for environmental review

FRIENDS OF THE GUALALA RIVER

The “Dogwood” Timber Harvest Plan (THP), an environmental review of the first major logging of the mature redwood forest on the sensitive floodplain of the Gualala River, has been sent back to CAL FIRE for a full revision. The plan is bound for a fourth cycle of public comments. CAL FIRE, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, is the state agency that regulates commercial logging.

On January 25, 2017, Judge René Chouteau of Sonoma County Superior Court made an unexpected ruling to remand the entire Dogwood THP back to CAL FIRE to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and Forest Practices Act (FPA).

The unanticipated early court decision to require correction of the THP’s incomplete, deficient treatment of many cumulative environmental impacts vindicates environmental organizations and many local residents who commented on and protested the Dogwood logging plan.

“We have in effect already prevailed on one CEQA issue” said Edward Yates, attorney for the plaintiffs Forest Unlimited, Friends of Gualala River, and California Native Plant Society.

Petitioners had requested that the Court consider extra-record evidence about subsequent Gualala Redwoods Timber (GRT) redwood logging plans in the same Gualala River floodplain forest as Dogwood THP. Those logging plans were filed with CAL FIRE immediately or soon after circulation of the Dogwood THP.

Mr. Yates argued that these post-Dogwood THPs were directly relevant for environmental review of Dogwood THP under CEQA and the Forest Practice Rules. Mr. Yates pointed out that these THPS were known to GRT and CAL FIRE, but not disclosed or analyzed for public review as potential cumulative impacts in the Dogwood THP as required by CEQA.

In an unexpected turn, Judge Chouteau remanded the entire Dogwood THP back to CAL FIRE, providing for a full overhaul of incomplete or defective environmental review. The Court specifically found that CAL FIRE had violated CEQA’s cumulative impact analysis requirements, and remanded the THP to CAL FIRE to provide CAL FIRE the opportunity to revise that analysis to be compliant with CEQA. Judge Chouteau held that while CAL FIRE is revising the cumulative impacts section, CAL FIRE would also have the opportunity to revise any other sections.

The Court will retain jurisdiction over the case while CAL FIRE revises the Dogwood THP again. After the revised Dogwood THP is recirculated and public comments are addressed, the Court will take up arguments again.

In the meantime, there is still an injunction suspending timber operations in the Dogwood THP area. After the Dogwood THP lawsuit was filed, however, CAL FIRE approved another GRT floodplain redwood logging plan on the Gualala River next to The Sea Ranch, the “German South” THP. In addition, CAL FIRE is preparing to approve yet another GRT floodplain logging plan on the river, “Plum” THP.“

This decision confirms that CAL FIRE failed yet again to regulate the timber industry and protect the environment,” said Larry Hanson, president of Forest Unlimited. “Despite forestry rules specifically designed to protect floodplain forests against cumulative impacts, CAL FIRE dismissed the combined impacts of piecemealed floodplain logging plans, totaling hundreds of acres and many miles, with even more on the way. This is why we had to take them to court. Fortunately, the Court is going to make them do their job.”

The unprecedented, rapid series of floodplain redwood forest logging plans is alarming both local communities and environmental organizations in the region. After decades of clear-cut logging on steep ridges by Gualala Redwoods Inc. (GRI, the predecessor of GRT), GRT is apparently now hastening to log most of the floodplain of the lower Gualala River within its ownership. GRT stated in the Dogwood THP discussion of alternatives that the alluvial flats of the river contain some of their largest redwood timber, and they are not willing to set any of them aside from timber harvest plans.

Read more at: Sonoma County Superior Court Remands Entire Dogwood Timber Harvest Plan Back to CAL FIRE for Environmental Review of Controversial Gualala River Redwood Forest Floodplain Logging – Friends of Gualala River

Filed under Forests, Habitats, Land Use