Surveying Upper Elk Meadows RNA

Frasera umpquaensis is a rare endemic found in the RNA. The inflorescence has a very shaggy look from the long sepals and bracts on the numerous flowers, most of which hadn’t opened yet.

Last Wednesday (June 20), I was invited to join a group of BLM botanists and natural resources specialists on a trip to Upper Elk Meadows, a BLM Research Natural Area (RNA). I’d only been there once before, last year (see Finally a Visit to Upper Elk Meadows) and had only spent a couple of hours, so I was excited to explore it with people who had been going there for many years. This area interests me because it is farther west than I usually go, in large part because much of the western edge of the Western Cascades is in private hands—the result of the checkerboard land allocation that resulted from the O&C Lands Act of 1937—and even the public land can be hard to access. The reason they were going up there was to get some data on whether the native Douglas’ hawthorn (Crataegus suksdorfii) was in danger of swallowing up what was left of the open wetland. Alan Curtis is a retired BLM botanist and fellow NPSO member. He’s been coming to this site for many decades. It was his idea and energy that got this designated as an RNA, an area of quality habitat protected for biological research. In his many years of visiting Upper Elk Meadows, Alan has seen an advancement of shrubs across this wetland. Large parts of it are almost impenetrable thickets of shrubs. Only a few areas are open herbaceous wet meadow.

In this Google Earth aerial image of the RNA, you can see the different shades of green. The bright green is herbaceous meadow, most evident where you enter the wetland in the upper righthand corner. The majority of the wetland is a darker green, some grayer, some brighter. These are the shrubby areas. We made our way across the middle from north to south, passing through the rounder brown spot.

When we arrived, Nancy Sawtelle showed us some aerial photos and led a discussion about the many issues that this possible invasion brought up. First, is it really happening? Part of “our” job (I didn’t really have to work!) was to survey the area and see whether the hawthorns really are expanding into the meadow. Second, if they are, then what can or should be done? This is a native plant. Perhaps this is just the natural progression as a wetland ages. Or maybe it is a result of the warming climate drying out the water table. What is the purpose of protecting an area? To allow it to do its own thing without human interference? Or maybe, with so few quality wetlands undamaged by resource extraction, we should do everything we can to keep the ecosystem in its current state. There are so many interesting questions that come up when dealing with this sort of issue. Being an amateur naturalist rather than a professional ecologist, this was a learning experience for me. There were also numerous questions about what the agency can do legally in an RNA. And if they do cut out some of the hawthorns, what do you do with the branches? When do you do it so as to impact the wetland as little as possible? Would it even work? Hawthorns are hard to kill and will most likely resprout after being cut back. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

A hail storm had apparently damaged all the older Iris chrysophylla flowers. Only the fresh ones were unscathed.

With all these questions to ponder, we headed into the open west end of the wetland. While the rest of them focused on looking at the hawthorn population, some of which, surprisingly, seemed to be dying back rather than encroaching, I focused my attention on surveying the plants here and getting to know the area better. One of the blooming plants which caught my eye was the small-flowered Brewer’s bittercress (Cardamine breweri). This plant usually shows up in open water areas such as the small rivulet it was in here. It took me years before I noticed this modest plant, although I have since found it in many wetland sites. It had apparently escaped the view of the BLM folks as well and was not on their list. From here we headed to a drier meadow area to look at the rare endemic Umpqua frasera (Frasera umpquaensis). It was just beginning to bloom. There’s only one site farther north than this, at Sourgrass Mountain in Lane County (we were just over the southern border into Douglas County). Most of it is in or near the Rogue-Umpqua Divide to the southeast. There were also loads of the creamy flowers of slender-tubed iris (Iris chrysophylla). It made for quite a pleasant spot to sit down and enjoy lunch.

Ribes triste was wandering along underneath the willows, evidently rooting as went. Only a few flowers (on the left) remained.

After we finished, Nancy and the other two BLM guys headed back into Eugene or elsewhere in the district. Cheshire Mayrsohn was the only one from BLM lucky enough to stay with Alan and me for the rest of the day. We took on the challenge of heading into the swamp that makes up most of the wetland. From the aerial photos, one can see many colors of green, but we didn’t know which if any were hawthorn. Cheshire led us through the woods until we found a reasonable way into the soupy wet, shrubby area. On the way in, I spotted another plant not on the list, broad-leaved twayblade (Listera convallarioides). It wasn’t blooming yet, but it’s been on my radar for the last few years, and I’ve recently seen it at both along Deer Creek Road and Road 21 southeast of Hills Creek Reservoir. It prefers far wetter habitat than our other two species, L. caurina and cordata. When I really got excited, however, was as soon as we pushed our way into the thicket of what turned out to be mostly willows. There below me were the maple-shaped leaves and red petioles of swamp red currant (Ribes triste). I let out a cry of excitement. Neither of my companions had ever heard of this plant, so I’m sure they thought I was going a little overboard. The plants didn’t even seem to be blooming. But as we crossed (slowly and carefully) through the thick growth of willows, we saw quite a bit more of it. Eventually we saw both early fruit and fading flowers. As I’ve come to know this plant (see Park Creek Coming into Bloom for my most recent encounter), I’ve felt there must be much more out there than the fewer than 10 scattered sites listed on the Oregon Flora Project Atlas. This is a perfect example of how species get overlooked. After all, what kind of silly people would even attempt heading into this morass?

This small opening in the acres of willow and alder thicket showed signs of former beaver activity. Could the pile of sticks in the middle have been an old lodge?

Actually it was kind of fun, even if the going was quite slow and we had to be careful not to trip over the sprawling trunks or get our boots sucked off in the occasional deep spots in the mud. There were also a great deal of plants in the only partially shaded understory. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius). We found our way into one of the openings in the center that was visible in the aerial photos. Cheshire said it used to be filled with water when she had been there a while back. Now there was just a channel of water winding through, filled with rafts of water starwort (Callitriche [heterophylla?]). There were many cut branches here. Surely no one had come in here with a saw. Cheshire pointed out the slightly uneven marks indicating beavers had done this work. It looked sharp as a saw cut to me, but when I felt it, the toothmarks were quite apparent. Those beavers are so talented! Back into the thick of the willows, we punched our way through to the other side. We tried to follow the forest edge a ways but then angled off in an attempt to get to a smaller hidden wetland south of the main one we first entered. I think this was tougher going than the swamp. We had to climb over lots of large fallen trees and creep under tangles of vine maples and finally through a large prickly swath of blooming salmonberry. And I was wearing my bog boots! But we did find it and were happy to discover the larger wetland was only a few hundred feet more through the woods. I think we were all happy to be back at the car where we could finally relax, but it was a great day. And this was one bushwhack I was happy not to have done by myself. Still I may have to go back to check it out some more, especially to see if the Ribes triste grows across the entire swamp as I suspect it does. Thanks to the BLM folks for inviting me along!

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