Introduction to Proceedings of the 1st Conference on Siskiyou Ecology
Art R. Kruckeberg1 and Frank A. Lang2
1Department of Botany, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195;
2Department of Biology, Southern Oregon University, Ashland, OR 97520
Few places in North America offer the physical and biological complexity of the Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion. It is one of those places on our planet that can evoke wonder, reverence, and unending curiosity among all who delight in the natural world. Nowhere is such a rich display of landforms, geology, and an indigenous, richly endemic biota more grandly displayed in the American West. Its richness, displayed in all branches of natural science and in major economic mineral and timber resources, as come to provoke the ultimate question: How to preserve this province and bioregion in all its distinctive ecosystems – in the face of ongoing resource extraction and other human incursions?
That was one of the primary questions asked during the First Conference on Siskiyou Ecology held in the Illinois Valley of southwestern Oregon, May 30 – June 1, 1997. The scientists and naturalists who contributed to these proceedings are attempting to unravel what David Rains Wallace calls the “Klamath Knot.” His masterful, now classic natural history book, The Klamath Knot, set the tone for the conference. Wallace challenges us to begin to loosen the “Knot” with new knowledge. For so vast and complexly rich a region, that will take several lifetimes of study. The Klamath Knot will, in time, have many of its loops known, but will be unyielding to a complete unraveling. The First Conference made a fine beginning to untie the Knot.
Most everyone in the far West knows the location of that grand cordillera, the Sierra Nevada-Cascade backbone of California, Oregon, and Washington. Fewer know of the Klamath Mountains. South of the Coast Range in Oregon, north of the Coast Range in California, and west of the Cascades, the ancient Klamath Mountains extend over 11,800 square miles from Oregon south into northwestern California. The Klamaths consist of a series of lesser, but still impressive mountain ranges from the Siskiyous in the north through the Salmon and Marble Mountains to the Trinities in the south.
To paraphrase John McPhee’s provocative title, “Assembling California,” assembling the Klamath-Siskiyou province is an apt descriptor for the region’s geology. The Klamaths are a patchwork of folded, faulted, intruded, metamorphosed rocks. Pieces of continents or exotic terranes, as they are called, that drifted along with the movement of tectonic plates were pushed, shoved, squeezed, and heated. Continental and oceanic plates collided and in the process, the oceanic plate was subducted beneath the continent. The sea floor was scraped off upon the continental face like frosting on a knife dragged across a chocolate cake as the rest of the oceanic late slid below to melt and rise through the continental crust as the volcanoes of the Cascade Mountain range.
The result is a richly embellished landscape of many geological formations. Granites, diorite, sandstone, gabbro, and ultramafic rocks are the important mountain-forming rocks with limestone, shale, chert, and Quaterary alluvium adding to the variety. John Whetten, noted Northwest geologist, aptly described such complex mélanges as “fruit-cake geology,” in contrast to the self-evident “layer cake geology” of the Columbia Plateau of Washington State.
The oceanic floor makes a different kind of bedrock which makes a different kind of soil, a soil high in metals such as iron, magnesium, nickel, chromium, and cobalt and low in calcium. These serpentine, or ultramafic, soils as they are sometimes called, make growth difficult for many plant species. Special plants adapted for such a soil make for an unusual flora, a serpentine flora composed of endemic species found nowhere else on planet Earth. The vast extent of ultramafic geology and soils makes the region unique in North America.
The region is well supplied with water courses and water sources. One river, the Klamath, is an antecedent stream that extends from the Klamath Lake basin to the east through the Cascade and Klamath Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Just north of the Klamath, the Rogue River flows from the west slopes of the former Mt. Mazama (Crater Lake) to the coast. The Rogue’s tributaries, the Applegate and Illinois rivers, drain the Siskiyou Mountains. Major rivers of the wetter western side of the Klamaths which flow directly to the sea, include the Chetco and Smith rivers. Water on the drier eastern side drains into the Klamath and the Sacramento rivers in smaller streams; the Trinity, Salmon, Scott, and Shasta rivers to the Klamath and small creeks and streams flow east to the Sacramento.
The climate is complex as well. Geomorphic forces in the Klamath Mountains have formed mountain ranges running east to west which intercept winter storms from north and south. Long and hot, dry summers yield cooling fog along the coast when hot interior breezes hit the cold Pacific. Summers end in late October with the onset of storms from north or south depending on the location of high pressure ridges and dips and wiggles of the jet stream. The northern storms bring snow and cold, the southern storms bring warm rains. Annual precipitation may vary from over 200 cm per year at higher summits to 19 cm per year in rain shadows.
The Klamaths have been in place for aeons and avoided major glaciation during the last great ice age. They have seen the rise and fall of global warming and the migration to and fro of entire floras. With all of their complexity, the Klamaths and their smaller part, the Siskiyous, have provided habitat for many different plants with many different requirements. The flora is rich in species diversity, richer in many ways than the minerals that provide complexity for habitat and economic gains for humans.
The flora of the Klamath-Siskiyou includes an unusually high number of endemic species, many of them serpentine. Smith and Sawyer’s 1988 study of northwestern California and southwestern Oregon discovered 281 endemic taxa from the broader area that includes the Klamath Mountains. Their study emphasizes the botanical importance of the area.
One square mile (2.6 sq. kilometers) in the Russian Peak Wilderness in the Salmon Mountains is home to 17 different conifers, a record seldom rivaled on this planet or any other. In the Siskiyou Mountains portion of the bioregion the Bear Basin Butte Botanical Area has 16 conifers within a 500 hectare area. Botanists describe these places as “enriched stands in the Klamath Mountains.” Thirty one conifer species are native to the Klamath Mountains. Some species, Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), are common and widely distributed. Others, such as subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and Alaska yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) reach their southern limits in craggy Klamath heights. Foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana) has an odd distribution split between the southern Sierra Nevada many miles to the south and scattered populations in the Klamath Mountains as far north as Lake Mountain above the Klamath River. Other species, Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana) and Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) are the Klamaths’ own.
Port Orford cedar is at risk. Its straight-grained fragrant wood is worth a fortune in Japan. Not only is it and its relative Alaska yellow cedar the only conifers that can still be exported from federal lands to foreign markets as whole logs, but POC, as it is abbreviated by its enthusiasts, is at great risk from another foreign threat, a devastating root-rot, Phytophthora lateralis. At higher elevations in the mesic western Siskiyous impressive old-growth stands of POC still remain . . . for the time being.
The Klamath-Siskiyou forests are not all conifers. Evergreen hardwoods mix liberally with the conifers to form a complex series of plant communities. Many are members of the oak family: golden chinquapin (Chrysolepis chrysophylla), tan oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), and canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis). The madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is a member of the heath family, and its broad evergreen leaves, handsome smooth red bark, clusters of creamy flowers, or masses of red berries, depending on the time of year, always make it a welcome sight.
The abundant serpentine exposures in Klamath-Siskiyou country have their own singular plant associations. Throughout the region a Jeffrey pine-grassland savannah commonly occurs on serpentine flats and gentle slopes. Upslope to ridges, serpentines are clothed with xeric shrub communities that include an endemic shrub form of the tan oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus var. echinoids), the huckleberry oak (Quercus vaccinifolia) and Brewer oak (Q. garryana var. breweri). On serpentine exposures along barren ridge-tops, sparse, prostrate patches of Siskiyou mat (Ceanothus pumilus) and Juniperus communis var. jackii commingle with widely spaced, often endemic herbs such as evergreen everlasting (Antennaria suffrutescens) and the Siskiyou fritillaria (Fritillaria glauca) to create the sere barren landscape so typical of the serpentine “syndrome.”
Nowhere is the “syndrome” better seen than at Rough and Ready Botanical Wayside south of Cave Junction, Oregon in the Illinois Valley. These dry, barren looking serpentine flats look like a desert in late summer, fall, and winter. In the spring and early summer these dry areas are a riot of color: pink, purple, lavender and blue from phlox, onions, rock cress and larkspurs. Later, yellow wild buckwheat, wall-flowers and composites dominate the scene. Many of these are rare, unusual species: more local serpentine endemics.
Yet of all serpentine habitats, the most spectacular has to be the Darlingtonia fen. These wetlands support an amazing flora dominated by various sedges, rushes and grasses, and the insectivorous California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica). Western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) with its masses of cream and peach colored, heavenly scented flowers surround the wetlands along with California lady-slippers (Cypripedium californicum) and Vollmer’s lily (Lilium pardalinum var. vollmeri). Other members of the community include yellow California coneflower (Rudbeckia californica) and California bog-aspodel (Narthecium californicum), often in large quantities, and some very rare plants like the bright blue Waldo (Mendocino) gentian (Gentiana setigera) and white and purple large flowered rush-lilies (Hastingsia bracteosa s.l.). The Hastingsias are limited to the wetland seeps along the west side of the Illinois Valley, Josephine Creek and around Eight Dollar Mountain; found there and nowhere else on earth. Rare indeed.
The botanical riches of the Klamaths brought botanists to collect and study the many new and unusual species of the bioregion. Thomas Jefferson Howell, a self-taught botanist and an Oregon endemic himself, made three major collecting trips to the Illinois Valley in the 1870s. While there he discovered many species new to science that were named by Asa Gray and Sereno Watson at Harvard University. Another, later botanical visitor was Lilla Leach, who with her husband John explored the region in the decade between 1928 and 1938. On June 14, 1930 Lilla discovered a small pink flowered shrub that turned out to be a new endemic genus, Kalmiopsis leachiana, a remarkable discovery.
Another early 20th Century visitor was Alice Eastwood of the California Academy of Sciences who walked from Crescent City to Waldo in the Illinois Valley so as not to miss the manzanita (Arctostaphylos) species described by Howell. The stagecoach ran at night.
Charles Vancouver Piper (Washington State University), Louis Henderson (University of Oregon), Elmer Applegate (Stanford University), and Morton Peck (Willamette University) were also attracted to the area. It seems like most of the western professional botanists of the later part of the 20th Century have visited the region, as have seeds men and nurserymen, and wildflower enthusiasts of all types: rock gardeners, photographers, and artists.
Pioneering plant ecologist Robert Whittaker was also attracted to the area. His studies of the vegetation of the Siskiyous brought world-wide attention to the region. Whittaker first pointed out the botanical richness of the area and compared it with the southern Appalachians in floral diversity and species richness. He credited the Klamath-Siskiyou Region as having “central significance” for the floristic origins and diversity of Pacific Northwest floras. Here, past floras found mesic refugia as late Tertiary aridity increased in the far West. Then as a discrete bioregion, it became an evolutionary nursery for the genesis of many endemic species and unique ecosystems. Probably nowhere else in the West is endemism so abundant: endemic Conifers, already mentioned, a host of woody angiosperms and a diverse array of endemic herbs. As mentioned, totals for plant endemism are impressive, and on serpentine alone endemics total 30 species and infraspecific variants!
The Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion abounds in a diversity of animal life. Much is known about the vertebrate fauna. All major classes of mammalian vertebrates are well represented from insectivores to carnivores to primates, if you believe that Sasquatch walks the Earth. The Siskiyou wild lands are the source of many Sasquatch tales. Other vertebrates, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes figure prominently in most of the region’s ecosystems. Most are common and wide-spread. A few like Del Norte salamander (Plethodon elongates) and the Siskiyou salamander (Plethodon stormi) are endemics. And a few, like the once-bounteous runs of salmon in Klamath Mountain rivers are testimony to the deterioration of the regions once pristine ecosystems.
One of us (ARK) was introduced to the region in 1950. Fresh from the botany of southern California, I was plunged into a whole new flora -- bewildering and fascinating. With the eminent taxonomist, C. Leo Hitchcock, I compiled a synoptic collection of the plant life mostly along the West Fork of the Illinois River and of the country east of Takilma to Bolan Peak. Ever since that introduction to the flora, I have been lured back by the singular diversity of the region. As a newcomer to the flora, just one encounter with the eerie cobra-like pitcher-leaves of Darlingtonia was to make me a believer in miracles.
The other of us (FAL) arrived at Southern Oregon College in the fall of 1966 to teach botany and never found a good reason to leave. Every class field trip was an adventure with endless plants to find and study. A visit to the Dalingtonia fens, no matter what the season of the year, resulted in always finding something interesting to see. One of the great pleasures of teaching plant systematics and ecology under such circumstances is the look of amazement on students’ faces when they see (and smell) the innards of a Darlingtonia pitcher, or see real hybrid Calochortus with both parents, or when they realize the special value of the rare endemics that they observe. I have felt quite blessed to have had the good fortune to spend most of a career working in one of the great botanical areas of the world. What success I have had with students can be attributed in large measure to the fascinating flora of the Klamaths.
It was inevitable that a global view of outstanding bioregions would single out the Klamath-Siskiyou Province as meriting the highest rank. A World Wildlife Fund study recently ranked the Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion as one of the three top conifer biomes in the world. This worthy recognition comes hard up against the reality of attaining a good measure of preservation for the region. Complex ownerships – private and public – as well as continuity of ecosystems across state boundaries, and long-standing preoccupation with extraction of is resources, all present immense challenges for conservationists. This was a key component of the First Conference Siskiyou Ecology: finding ways to begin the protection of one of North America’s most amazingly rich and complex bioregions.
Ironically, the very feature that helps make the region a botanical Eldorado, its mineral riches, also creates a major conservation conflict. The first Europeans flooded into the area in the 1850s in a never-ending quest for gold. Gold is still sought today, but so are nickel, chromium and cobalt. Humans want to mine the minerals for profit and the minerals are where the rare endemic wildflowers grow. How to deal with this conflict is one of the many environmental dilemmas of our times.
To many people the biological significance of the region and its beauty outweigh any short-term destructive, consumptive benefits that might be derived from mineral or timber extraction. The biologically significant portions of the area should be set aside as preserves or parks and managed for their biological values. If destroyed, the region will never recover and these wonders of creation will be lost forever.
Art Kruckeberg and Frank Lang
November 4, 1997