Friday, June 19, 2009

Reforestation in a dry environment

My East Coast colleagues don't have to worry much about reforestation; leave the land alone and it will reforest itself naturally. You might want to select what is allowed to come up, and perhaps plant species that you prefer, but even then it's usually "plant and forget".

Out here in the West, it's much more difficult. In the first place, you seldom get natural reforestation, at least not at anything approaching an acceptable time. The rough rule of thumb in the West is that it takes about a thousand years for a devastated patch of land to return to its aboriginal state. Of course, that time period depends crucially on the amount of rain. In the rainy Pacific Northwest, regeneration can complete in about a hundred years; in the Nevada desert, it can take millennia. In my environment, we get about 22 inches of rain per year, which is pretty good by West Coast standards but still well below the 50 inches that is common on the East Coast and the 42 inches that is typical for Eugene, Oregon, just 200 miles north of us.

When an area of forest is cleared, the recovery is carried out in a sequence. First come the manzanita, a scrub brush that burns hot in fires. A few oaks, madrones, douglas first, and ponderosa pines will eventually sprout in the soil and grow slowly (because they're underneath the faster-growing manzanita). After several decades some of these will start overtopping the manzanita, enabling them to grow somewhat faster. They'll also spread more seeds and acorns, restarting the process. However, the manzanita has deep roots and is long-lived, so once it has been established, it can take centuries for it to die out so that the forest reaches its climax stage.

The best way to accelerate this process is to plant seedlings and clear the immediate area. Usually, however, we don't bother clearing -- we just plant the seedlings in areas that have sunlight. There are enough openings to make this a viable strategy.

Before you can plant seedlings, you have to obtain them, and that's a problem. We used to have a state nursery in Oregon that sold seedlings of all kinds. The Ponderosa Pines that we use ran about $0.70 apiece in quantities of one hundred. But the commercial nurseries complained bitterly about the competition from the government, so the state government closed the state nursery. When I asked around at the local nurseries, the price of Ponderosa Pines was around $4.00 apiece. There's definitely something fishy here. Moreover, I couldn't get Ponderosa Pines suited to my altitude.

So I took a different tack this last planting season (December-January). I harvested some of the numerous seedlings that volunteer all over my land and replanted them in new locations. To do this, I just dug around the seedling with a shovel and then lifted a shovel-sized hunk of soil containing the seedling and its roots. Then I carried the seedling to its new already-dug hole and planted it there. This might seem like a simple enough task, but it's a lot rougher when you're carrying a ten pound hunk of soil 600 feet to its new home -- and doing it over and over with dozens of seedlings. But I was determined, and I got a bit more than 40 seedlings planted this last January.

Now, however, comes the real test: keeping them alive through the summer. There's no rain at all from June through November, and this is the period when trees die. Seedlings are especially vulnerable because their roots have not set properly; it takes a full year for the roots to re-establish themselves after replanting.

If you want to water trees, you just use a hose, right? Well, yes, but it's a bit different. It's about 800 feet from the closest water tap to the furthest seedling. That's a long, long way. We have enough hose to handle the problem -- over the years we have acquired lots of hose. The problem is that the furthest seedling is a good deal higher than the tap, and between the pressure loss and the resistance of 800 feet of hose, I get very little flow: perhaps 1 gallon every five minutes. With 40 seedlings to water, you can see the problem.

Fortunately, a solution was at hand: crank up the well pump that feeds the tap. I went to work and cranked it up to about 40 psi (standard household water pressure is about 30 to 25 psi -- but we're on a well and we keep the pressure down around 25 psi to save electricity. With a cranked-up pump, I could get about a gallon a minute.

There are still problems: if I water in the afternoon, the water in the hose is scalding hot (from all that inadvertent solar water heating) and would surely kill the seedlings, so I must either throw away all the water in the hose (perhaps 10 gallons, which takes a while) in order to reach the cooler water, or water at other times of the day.

And then there's hose management. When you're maneuvering hundreds of feet of hose, you spend a lot of effort just moving it around. I use a system in which the hoses are laid out along the general line of trees, but disconnected. I connect each hose in turn as I work my way further out. On the next watering run, I disconnect hoses as I move closer to the tap.

One other trick: I plant my seedlings in deep holes; the seedling ends up about eight inches below the ground surface. Why? Three reasons: first, it provides a small amount of shade for the seedling part of the day, which reduces its water requirements. Second, it gives the seedling access to deeper soil, which holds water longer. And third, the pit holds two or three gallons of water that will soak straight down.

If I do everything right, I might get 90% survival rate. If I underestimate the water needs of the seedlings, that might easily go down to 50% survival rate. And if I don't water at all, the survival rate will be less than 10%. If I get the seedlings through this summer, then I can leave them to nature and they'll sit quiescent for two or three years, getting their root systems big enough to handle growth. Sometime around the fourth or fifth year after planting, they'll start growing vigorously.

That's what it takes to reforest land in southern Oregon. It's a lot of work, and I can only handle maybe a hundred trees per year -- and that's only if I devote a lot of time to the task. And my land could probably hold another thousand trees easily.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gimme shelter

Category: Places for Cover
Required points: 2
Suggested sources: Wooded Area • Bramble Patch • Ground Cover • Rock Pile or Wall • Cave • Roosting Box • Dense Shrubs or Thicket • Evergreens • Brush or Log Pile • Burrow • Meadow or Prairie • Water Garden or Pond

The Places for Cover credit requires a little explanation to differentiate it from the Places to Raise Young credit (to be described in a future post). National Wildlife Federation describes the cover credit:

Wildlife need places to hide to feel safe from people, predators, and inclement weather. Native vegetation is a perfect cover for terrestrial wildlife. Shrubs, thickets and brush piles provide great hiding places within their bushy leaves and thorns.

Bat box: Bat boxes are rather like bird nesting or roosting boxes, only entry is through the bottom. A typical bat box also includes some parallel interior walls. Bats don't need much personal space, but they do need a surface to cling to. I picked-up my bat box, ready-made at Lowe's, for about $20. Installation was a matter of a stepladder, a cordless drill to bore a pilot hole and start the screws, and fifteen minutes of my time. My then 12-month-old son was enthralled by this process.
Alas, no bats have yet taken-up residence in my bat box. In fact, I haven't been certain that I've seen a single bat all season. What troubles me is that I don't think that this is simply a matter of probability and the fact that getting my son ready for bed means that I spend less time outside in the evening than I used to. I'm concerned that this is indicative of white nose syndrome, the fungal plague that is apparently decimating Eastern bat populations. It seems that there just aren't any bats around.

Evergreen trees: Since I like to exploit some of the features that were already in my yard before I started gearing-up my habitat, I'm leaning on the two (likely exotic) evergreen trees that crowd the west wall of my home for one of my Cover points. Evergreens provide a place for birds to roost and evade predators, year-round.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

trying to be a good environmental citizen

Twelve and a half years ago our region suffered a destructive mid-winter snow and ice storm that knocked out power to a wide area for three days. It was our first winter in our house and our only alternative source of heat was an open fire place. It kept us from freezing, but it was a very unpleasant three days. So early the next fall we invested in a large size kerosene heater and a five gallon drum of kerosene.

However, we did not have another winter time power outage until this year, which lasted two days, but they were unseasonably warm days despite being in February, and we only needed the fireplace in the evening to take off the chill. So here we are twelve years later with five gallons of kerosene which have taken on moisture and gone bad, and cannot be safely burned in our kerosene heater.

I started calling all over our county trying to find someone who would accept kerosene for environmentally sound disposal. Everyone was very quick to say "no" -- some even vehemently, including the major distributor of kerosene in the area. I got discouraged and stopped searching for a while.

Last week, I decided to try the web, and ended up with Kentucky's state department of hazardous waste. I sent an e-mail, and got a quick response telling me that they would refer me to the regional hazardous waste office. Two days later, I got an informative e-mail from the regional office. The regional official said that "most" places that accept used motor oil will also accept kerosene, and he provided me a list with phone numbers of four or five locations within 40 miles of my home that accepted motor oil. I called all of them and each of them said, in no uncertain terms "NO," they only accept used motor oil, and would not accept kerosene.

One person I talked to suggested that I use the kerosene up by burning brush on my property. [First I don't have that much brush, and second we try to leave brush in place to provide habitat for wild critters.]

Back, by e-mail, to my regional office. The response was quick and informative -- kerosene can be disposed of in a properly contained landfill, but only after it is "solidified" by mixing it with something like kitty litter, and leaving it open to the air to evaporate. Only when it is totally dry can you dispose of it, and only in properly lined and sealed landfill. Since I am not yet certain we have one of those, I'm still not certain whether I will be able to dispose of my ancient and contaminated kerosene.

The point of my narrative is this: how can citizens be the solution and act in environmentally responsible ways with toxic wastes if there is no one within any reasonable travel distance who will accept those wastes? I now have at least a smidgen more sympathy for the local oil distribution company that has just been stacking old diesel fuel tanks on an empty lot -- with the not too unexpected outcome of leakage into the regional water supply.