The purpose of the Clean Water Act (CWA) is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” Section 404 of the CWA, which is one of the mechanisms used to achieve this goal, regulates the discharge of fill into “waters” of the United States. The CWA defined waters of the United States to include “tributaries to navigable waters, interstate wetlands, wetlands which could affect interstate or foreign commerce, and wetlands adjacent to other waters of the United States.” (Over the years, there has been much debate about this definition but that is a subject for a different post.) In the case of wetlands, when an unavoidable impact occurs mitigation is typically required. For example, if a 10 acre wetland is destroyed during the course of building one of those ‘Big Box’ stores, the owners of that Big Box store would be required to provide compensatory mitigation for that loss. In other words, they would be required to replace “that” which they destroyed.

Sounds straightforward and fair, right? The problem is that defining what “that” means is a complicated exercise. Is it acre-for-acre? Should the same type of wetland be replaced (marsh for marsh, and not marsh for fen)? What about the quality or integrity of the wetland? Should that be replaced? Or, maybe only certain values of the wetland need to be replaced (good duck habitat for good duck habitat). And, how do all these different replacement “currencies” relate to the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity” of our Nation’s waters? Originally, acreage was the currency of choice. In some cases, it remains such. However, wetland function soon arose as a refined currency by which to measure wetland loss or gain. The ecosystem characteristics related to a select set of ecosystem functions were identified. Because ecosystem functions can be very costly to measure, these ecosystem characteristics became surrogate measures for function. They have been used to measure wetland loss/gain under the assumption that they accounted for loss/gain of wetland function. However, very little research has been conducted to determine whether changes in these ecosystem characteristics reliably predict changes in the rate and delivery of ecosystem functions. Considering the wetland regulatory system relies heavily on this assumption, it was very disheartening to read the paper highlighted in this article Restored Wetlands Rarely Equal Condition of Original Wetlands.

As someone who has spent many years contemplating and studying the ecological integrity of wetland ecosystems, the results of this study were no surprise. My humble opinion has always been that we place too much faith in our ability to restore Nature. I don’t mean to imply we should abandon the practice of restoration rather that we use it under the appropriate circumstances. Pro-active restoration–the act of restoring ecosystem integrity for the sake of the ecosystem and its critters–is a much needed option in the conservationists’ toolbox. However, restoration in the context of compensatory mitigation–being required to restore something in order to get permission to destroy something else–is a questionable exercise, especially when the expectation is that there will be “No Net Loss” of the ecosystem. I don’t deny there are restoration successes but as this study has shown, more often than not we don’t get back what we lose.

John Weaver offers a quote that I think sums up the issue. Although he is talking about prairies, his analogy applies to any ecosystem:

“The prairie provides us with a background against which we may measure the success or failure of our own land use and management….[it] is the outcome of thousands of years of sorting of species and adaptations to soil and climate…prairie is much more than land covered with grass. It is a slowly evolved, highly complex organic entity, centuries old”

–John E. Weaver

Restored Wetlands Rarely Equal Condition of Original Wetlands.

Descending Kenosha Pass and driving south toward Fairplay on U.S. Hwy. 285, South Park’s expansive, high montane grassland fills the view out the windshield. This short, sparsely vegetated grassland is dominated by Festuca arizonica (Arizona fescue) and Muhlenbergia filiculmis (slimstem muhly) and covers much of South Park’s 900 square mile (50×35 miles) valley floor. Walt Whitman noted from Kenosha Pass: “…South Park stretches fifty miles before me. Mountainous chains and peaks in every variety of perspective, every hue of vista, fringe the view, in nearer, or middle, or far-dim distance, or fade on the horizon.”  The view out the windshield is immense and intimidating, yet welcoming. Sometimes it is necessary to overwhelm our spatial sense and temporal perspective in order to feel the intricacies of the Natural world—to feel apart of something as opposed to its oppressor. 

P8060013 South Park grassland in foreground. Spruce trees in background are growing in High Creek Fen.

South Park is one of four, large intermountain basins scattered north and south in Colorado’s Southern Rocky Mountains. South Park is about 80 miles southwest of Denver and the “Park” itself is delimited by the valley floor grassland contrasting with the forested slopes of the surrounding mountain ranges: the Mosquito Range to the west, the Park Range to the north, Tarryall Mountains and Puma Hills to the east, and the Black and Thirtynine Mile mountains to the south. Although much of South Park’s valley floor is above 9,000 feet in elevation, this intermountain park only gets about 13 inches of rain each year due to the generally dry climate of the region exasperated by the imposing rainshadows of the surrounding mountains.

Location of South Park in Colorado.

High Creek fen is located at the blue maker. South Park is delimited
by the tan color to the north, south, and east of the marker.

After pulling out of Fairplay and driving south on Hwy. 285 a few miles, a strange cluster of spruce trees appears to the east of the highway.  The trees are completely out of place amidst the short-grass steppe of South Park’s valley floor.  Taking a left turn off the highway and heading down a two-track, dirt road, High Creek Fen emerges from the high montane steppe revealing an immense area of wet ground.  Hummocks, pools, rivulets, and a creek; spruce trees, willows, bog birch, bulrushes, sedges, cottongrass, and aquatic plants all blanket the area.

P8060014 High Creek Fen in background

Although early botanical explorers had visited the site, it is a bit astonishing that the significance of High Creek Fen as a refugia for glacial relicts and haven for rare critters went unnoticed until 1990 when Dr. David Cooper recognized the unique character and biodiversity significance of this ecological Eden. What Dr. Cooper had stumbled upon is what many North American ecologists consider to be one of the rarest wetland types on the continent—a calcareous or extremely rich fen. Extremely rich fens differ from other fens due to the unique chemical quality of the groundwater that supports their existence—a preponderance of calcium, magnesium, and other nutrients which create a very basic (i.e. high pH) environment. There is some confusion in the scientific literature as to whether extremely rich and calcareous are synonymous terms. From what I can tell, calcareous is a subset of extremely rich, since other types of bedrock than limestone can result in high cation concentrations in groundwater (e.g. marine shale). Extremely rich fens are only found where groundwater is in contact with calcareous bedrock, such as limestone and dolomite, or other types of bedrock rich in cations. South Park is one of those places. Numerous extremely rich fens occur in the northern and western portion of South Park and High Creek Fen is one of the largest, most intact, floristically rich, and ecologically diverse extremely rich fens in Colorado.  It harbors more rare plants (14) than any other wetland in the state.  Because of its importance to global and regional biodiversity, the Nature Conservancy purchased the property and now manages it to preserve its unique biological character.

High Creek Fen’s ecological diversity, uniqueness, and abundance of rare plants make it one of the most significant sites of biodiversity in the Southern Rocky Mountains.

The presence of such a large wetland in such a dry landscape is curious. High Creek is a meager stream and surely not large enough to wet such a large area. As a matter of fact, there is often no surface water in the channel before it enters High Creek Fen. It is not entirely clear why this is the case, but some researchers believe it may be (1) due to upstream diversions for agricultural use, or (2) due to the fact that as High Creek flows out of the mountains it ‘loses’ its flow to the underlying gravels and permeable limestone where it becomes groundwater, or (3) due to evaporation of the creek’s meager flow prior to reaching High Creek Fen. Likely, all three factors may be at play. Regardless, High Creek Fen is wet…very wet.  What keeps such a large place, in such a dry climate, so soggy? Groundwater, and lots of it. The Nature Conservancy has conducted hydrogeologic studies of the site and believes that groundwater feeding High Creek Fen emerges from two major types of aquifers: a shallow aquifer associated with surficial glacial and alluvial (i.e. stream) deposits and a regional aquifer associated with the Leadville limestone formation. Discharge from these aquifers occurs throughout a variety of orifices—cobble beds, pools, springs, and floating mats. Groundwater discharge from gravel and cobble beds, outwash from past glaciation, can be seasonal or permanent. Cobble beds typically serve as the ‘headwaters’ of numerous rivulets which end up coalescenceing into larger channels and then proceed to sneak their way through the fen. These channels also pick up slow moving groundwater emerging from other sources such as springs, pools, and quagmires or floating mats.  All of this water eventually gets channeled back into our old friend, High Creek, which abruptly leaves the fen in the southeast corner with much more volume that when it entered the fen. 

Aerial view of High Creek Fen showing extent of wet ground and exit of High Creek in the southeast portion of the fen. Sodic flats (white areas) can also been seen near the mouth of the fen. (Google Maps)

High Creek in the central portion of High Creek Fen (the grayish shrub is Salix candida, a rare willow in Colorado restricted to calcareous fens.)

So where does all this groundwater come from? The shallow aquifer is likely supported by seasonal precipitation and streamflow in High Creek. The more stable and deeper aquifer is associated with limestone bedrock that was formed during the late Cambrian period when South Park was inundated by a series of advancing and retreating seas.  Sediments in this sea were deposited and over time converted to limestone and dolomite deposits found underneath South Park’s valley floor. These deposits were also uplifted and subsequently eroded by glaciers and streams when the Mosquito Range pushed upward. Thousands of years of snowmelt have found its way into these relatively porous bedrock formations forming a regional aquifer. Each year, as snowmelt rushes down the numerous creeks flowing out of the Mosquito Range, both the shallow and deep aquifer are recharged. Another important contributing factor to High Creek Fen’s unique quality is the interaction of its geological past and contemporary hydrology.  During the Pleistocene, mountain glaciers and their associated meltwaters tore apart the uplifted limestone and dolomite bedrock and deposited large quantities of sediment, gravel, and cobbles, derived from these calcareous formations, out into South Park’s valley floor.  Groundwater associated with the shallow aquifer comes into contact with this glacial outwash and, along with groundwater associated with the Leadville limestone aquifer (which emerges as springs throughout the site), is rich with dissolved calcium and magnesium.  These waters are the reason High Creek Fens supports such unique vegetation patterns, rare plants, mosses and invertebrates.

Possible groundwater flow of shallow and deep aquifers originating in the Mosquito Range and flowing southeast toward High Creek Fen (in red).

As you walk through the fen, the ecological effects of all this emerging groundwater are very apparent. The groundwater presents itself to the surface in a variety of ways. Already discussed above were the cobble beds, which support vegetation typical of gravel bars and small, spring-fed creeks.  Groundwater also emerges from springs in flat areas to form pools, water tracks, and sedge lawns. Some have referred to the shallow pools as quagmires due to their unstable, soft marly peat soils. Similar areas with a sturdier substrate are called floating mats. Floating mats are places where a thick mat of sedges sits on top of strong upwelling groundwater. Walking on these areas is like tromping across a waterbed. Serving as very shallow, linear aquatic corridors between individual quagmires and floating mats are water tracks. Quagmire, floating mats, and water tracks support similar types of vegetation dominated by Eleocharis quinqueflora (few-flowered spikerush), Triglochin spp. (arrowgrass), and Utricularia spp. (bladderwort). Eriophorum spp. (cottongrass) is often found growing along the edges of quagmires and on floating mats. Sedge lawns are dominated by Carex aquatilis (water sedge) and Carex simulata (analogue sedge).

 Quagmires and floating mats.

Sedge lawn spreading out from a spring.

Hummocky areas consists of both hummock and hollow topography. Small hummocks are covered by Kobresia simpliciuscula (simple bog sedge) and Trichophorum pumilum (little bulrush) while slightly taller and drier hummocks are capped with Kobresia myosuroides and Thalictrum alpinum (alpine meadowrue). Both vegetation types are considered to be globally rare with examples only known to occur in South Park, Convict Creek Basin in California (latter type), and Swamp Lake in Wyoming (former type). Hollows are the low troughs between hummocks.  Hollows support similar vegetation as found in water tracks.

Tall hummocks dominated by Kobresia myosuroides and Thalictrum alpinum.

Another unique area of the fen is toward the outlet. This area is not permanently inundated like the rest of the fen rather is wetted by capillary action of the soil. Evaporation on the soil surface results in the soil ‘pulling’ up moisture from a relatively shallow water table, leaving magnesium and sodium salts to accumulate on the soil surface. This area has much more sodium than the rest of the site and thus has been referred to as the sodic flats. Although you wouldn’t guess it by handling the soil, it is comprised of more than 20% organic matter which makes it an organic soil, or peat. Instead of calciphiles, halophytes such as Poa juncifolia (alkali bluegrass), Phlox sibirica (alpine phlox), and Glaux maritima (sea milkwort) are dominant on these sodic peats.


Sodic flats in the southeast corner of High Creek Fen.

As mentioned previously, High  Creek Fen supports an abundance of rare plants. Two species, Ptilagrostis porteri (Porter feathergrass) and Sisyrinchium pallidum (pale blue-eyed grass) are globally rare, both having the majority of their global range in the extremely rich fens of South Park. Ptilagrostis porteri occurs on the top of hummocks while Sisyrinchium pallidum occurs in alkaline wet meadows and occasionally in the fen itself. The remaining 12 plants are considered rare in Colorado but are more common when their global distribution is considered:  Carex livida (Livid sedge) is found in the sedge lawns; Carex scirpoidea (single-spike sedge) grows in wet meadows and on top of taller and slightly drier hummocks; Carex viridula (green sedge) is found in sedge lawns, water tracks, and at the base of hummocks; Eriophorum gracile (slender cottongrass) grow in sedge lawns and near quagmires; Lilium philadelphicum (wood lily) is found growing on the small ‘islands’ of spruce in the shaded understory; Packera pauciflora (few-flowered ragwort) is found in wet meadows; Primula egaliksensis (Greenland primrose) grows on hummocks; Salix candida (hoary willow) is found in sedge lawns and on low hummocks; Salix serissima (autumn willow) is found in sedge lawns and in areas with low hummocks; Trichophorum pumilum (little bulrush) grows on low hummocks; Utricularia ochroleuca (northern bladderwort) is found growing in the shallow waters of the quagmires and water tracks; and Salix myrtillifolia (blueberry willow) is found near springs or strong upwelling groundwater. Salix myrtillifolia was once thought to not occur south of where past continental glaciation occurred and its presence at High Creek Fen indicates the role this fen (and other extremely rich fens in South Park) has played as a refugia for glacial relicts.  Basically, as the climate warmed following Pleistocene glaciation, many arctic and boreal species disappeared from Colorado’s landscape or moved to higher elevations.  High Creek Fen provided a refuge for some of those species, and many still survive here today (e.g. many of the rare plants discussed above) despite their absence throughout the lower 48 states.

IMG_1973 Packera pauciflora, a rare species


Salix serissima (bright green shrub) and Salix candida (grayish shrub) with High Creek in foreground.


Salix myrtillifolia in center of photograph.

The rare Utricularia ochroleuca (on left) and common Utricularia macrorhiza (on right).

Salix candida.

Carex viridula.

In addition to the rare plants, researchers have also found rare insects at High Creek Fen. Nine aquatic beetles were collected here that are not known from anywhere else in Colorado, with four of those beetles occurring well south of their known range. An extremely rare caddisfly (Ochrotrichia susanae) was also found and is known from only one other location in the world. A rare moss, Scorpidium scorpoides is also found a High Creek Fen growing in the sluggish waters of quagmires, water tracks, and pools.

Spending the day at High Creek Fen is an easy way to get lost—in time and space. There are very few wetlands, let alone fens, in the Southern Rocky Mountains as large and as diverse as this site. Although I have never been to the true boreal or arctic reaches of the North American continent, when I’m immersed in High Creek Fen’s wilderness I definitely feel as if I’m in those far northern landscapes—and very far from anything I have ever experienced. Time slows to a pace where my thoughts are set free in the present and not burdened by thoughts of future or past events.  No matter how many times I have visited the site, that same feeling returns. Now that I live in Washington State, I am not sure when my next visit to High Creek Fen will be, but I very much look forward to that day. High Creek Fen’s beauty may be hidden in the vast steppe of South Park’s floor but it is not to be missed.

A wise, old, spruce tree keeping a close watch on its beloved home—High Creek Fen.


Sources: Sanderson, J. and M. March, 1996. Extreme Rich Fens of South Park, Colorado: Their Distribution, Identification, and Natural Heritage Significance.  Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado State University.

Cooper, D.J. 1996. Water and soil chemistry, floristics, and phytosociology of the extreme rich High Creek fen, in South Park, Colorado, U.S.A. Can. J. Bot. 74:1801-1811.

Johnson, J.B. and D.A. Steingraeber. 2003. The vegetation and ecological gradients of calcareous mires in the South Park valley, Colorado. Can. J. Bot. 81: 201-219.

Washington State is known for its incredibly old, large and lush forests, beautiful coastline, and massive volcanoes, but nearly 1/3 of the state is occupied by what was once an expansive sea of sagebrush–the Columbia Basin. This area, known locally as shrub steppe, occurs from the eastern base of the Cascade Range, the southern base of the Okanogan Highlands, western base of the Northern Rocky Mountains, and south into Oregon. The entire area slopes inward from the base of the surrounding mountains down toward the valley of the Columbia River. Actually, shrub-steppe vegetation is much more expansive, extending throughout the majority of the inter-mountain west occupying much of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. It may seem odd that such a dry region could occur in Washington State, which also boasts the wettest areas in the lower 48 states. However, the Cascade Range has an overwhelming impact on the amount of moisture that gets carried in from the Pacific Ocean. As Pacific storms blow landward, the Cascades force moisture out of the clouds as they begin to climb up the western edge of the mountains. By the time the storms have moved across the Olympic Mountains and Cascade Crest, much of their moisture has been rung out leaving little to fall on the lands of eastern Washington. As a consequence, places on the Olympic Peninsula may receive upwards 0f 200 inches of rain/year while portions of eastern Washington may only get 5-10 inches/year!
Shrub Steppe – the Columbia Plateau is delimited by the tan color.
(Created with Google Maps)

The foundation of the Columbia Basin was laid down by massive amounts of lava that issued from regional fissures. The lava poured out of these vents and developed a thick layer of basalt that is up to 6,000 feet deep in some places! During the last Ice Age, massive floods, created by the failure of large glacier dams, carved apart this landscape leaving huge coulees (dry canyons), scablands, and unique topography across the Basin’s contemporary landscape. These floods not only scoured the landscape but they deposited much material leaving some areas with deep sand and gravel, other areas with fine soils, and others with very little soil at all. Wind blown silt and volcanic ash were deposited and accumulated over a vast portion of the eastern portion of the Columbia Basin. This area is known as the Palouse and supports (or did support…nearly 99% is lost) a unique and highly endangered grassland that I will ponder in a future post.

Moses Coulee: One of the many dry canyons created by glacial floods.

The physical template left by historical floods, wind-driven deposits, and in situsoil development from the underlying basalt have allowed the development of a diversity of shrub-steppe plant communities. To the incurious eye, the shrub steppe appears to be a monotonous swath of gray sagebrush and green or brown (depending on the season!) grasses and herbs. Biological diversity appears absent but is simply inconspicuous. A closer and more detailed look reveals a diversity of sagebrush and herbaceous species closely tied to specific environmental conditions.

A large portion of the Columbia Plateau is dominated by Artemisia tridentata subsp. wyomingensis/ Pseudoroegernia spicata (Wyoming big sagebrush/bluebunchwheategrass) plant association. This vegetation type occurs on modal (typical) soils and environmental conditions. The diversity of other native shrubs, grasses, and forbs is moderate and rarely exceeds 30 species.

Wyoming big sagebrush and bluebunchwheatgrass plant community.This is the
dominant vegetation type in the central portion of Washington’s shrub steppe.

On deep and/or sandy soils Artemisia tridentatasubsp. tridentata (basin big sagebrush) is the most conspicuous sagebrush species. Stipa comata (needle-and-thread grass) and Purshia tridentata (bitterbrush) are abundant in deep sandy or gravelly areas, including sand dunes which are scattered throughout the Columbia Basin. Deep soil sites also provide habitat for the state endangered pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis). The pygmy rabbit, the smallest rabbit in the United States, needs deep soils in order to dig its burrow. This little rabbit is, unfortunately, struggling in Washington–there are thought to be only about 30 rabbits left in the state.
The aspect, or the direction in which a site faces, has a significant impact on the type of vegetation which may develop. For example, south-facing slopes often receive more intense and a longer duration of direct sunlight than north-facing slopes. As a result, south slopes are typically warmer and drier due to increased evaporation from more intense solar radiation. Conversely, north-facing slopes are slightly cooler and moister. These differences result in unique expressions of vegetation. This is true in any ecosystem and not just the shrub-steppe. The relatively harsh environments of south-facing slopes makes them more susceptible to degradation from livestock grazing or other human-induced impacts. Similarly, south-facing slopes take much longer, than north-facing slopes, to recover from these disturbances.
North-facing slope dominated by lush shrub steppe consisting of Festucaidahoensis
and Artemisatridentatasubsp. wyomingensis can be seen in the foreground.
In the background is a south-facing slope dominated by Artemisatridentatasubsp.
wyomingensis, Salviadorrii, and a sparse cover of herbaceous vegetation, including
an abundance of nonnative species (in this case cheatgrass).
Eastern end of the Beezley Hills, near Ephrata, WA.
Scattered throughout the Columbia Basin are outcrops of basalt with minimal or shallowly developed soil. Such sites are often referred to as lithosols or scablands and support a sparse cover of vegetation. Artemisia rigida (rigid sagebrush), Poa secunda (Sandberg’s bluegrass), Phlox spp. (phlox), and a variety of Eriogonum spp. (buckwheats) and Lomatium spp. (biscuit roots) are the most common occupants of such habitats. The shrub steppe also wraps its arms around many other smaller habitats such as vernal pools (which support numerous rare plants), freshwater wetlands, riparian areas, sand dunes, cliffs, and playas. The contribution these small ecosystems they make toward overall landscape and species diversity (beta and alpha diversity, respectively) is immense.
Scabland site in foreground with Artemisia rigida and Poa secunda.
Rocky habitat supporting Salvia dorrii (purple sage)
As one heads toward the edge of the Columbia Basin, toward any of the surrounding mountains, local environments become cooler and more moist than the interior part of the shrub steppe. The change is subtle to most visitors as the domimance of bunchgrasses and sagebrush continues. However, the dominant species of typical shrub-steppe habitat shifts. Artemisia tripartita (three-tip sagebrush) and Festuca idahoensis (Idaho fescue) replace Artemisia tridenata subsp. wyomingensis and Pseudoroegenria spicata as the most abundant species. In addition, overall species richness of native plants can climb up to nearly 50 species in these moister habitats.

Cooler and moister sites support Artemisia tripartita and Festuca idahoensis shrub-steppe
along with a higher diversity of species than other sagebrush steppe vegetation types.
An important characteristic of most shrub-steppe plant communities is the presence of a biological soil crust which is made up of fungi, mosses, lichens and algae (collectively called cryptogams). Anyone willing to get on their knees and lower their nose close to the ground can observe the beautiful colors, textures, and patterns that these tiny little creatures offer. This crust not only supports a rich diversity of cryptogams but also plays a vital role in the functional health of the shrub steppe. Intact cryptogamic crusts improve infiltration of precipitation and thus retain moisture in the soil, protect the soil from erosion and thus provide soil stability, and even provide nutrients for other plants species. All of these are vital for the sustainability of shrub steppe. When human activities destroy this crust, the site becomes vulnerable to degradation. The absence of the soil crust provides an opportunity for a highly invasive plant, Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass) to become established. Once established, cheatgrass, an annual species, can dominate a site and push out native species. This little plant has taken over much of the shrub steppe across the Inter-mountain West of the United States. It is a nasty little plant. When the crust is intact, Bromus tectorum is unable to gain a foothold as the crust effectively serves as a barrier to germination for this species. Preservation of these crusts may be one way to stop the spread of an annual species on the verge of delivering a knockout punch to sagebrush habitat throughout the West. Of course, this requires some difficult cultural decisions about the way we use the sagebrush landscape.
Cryptogamic crust on shrub-steppe soil.
In addition to the pygmy rabbit mentioned above, there are numerous other critters which entirely depend on sagebrush habitats for survival. Such species are called sagebrush obligates and include Spizella breweri (Brewer’s Sparrow), Amphi spizabelli(Sage Sparrow), Oreoscoptes montanus (Sage Thrasher), Tympanuchusphasianellussubsp. columbianus(Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse), and Centrocercusurophasianus (Sage Grouse). The latter two are listed as Threatened by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Both species once occurred throughout the Columbia Basin but loss of shrub-steppe habitat, degradation of existing habitat, and fragmentation caused by the network of roads, powerlines, development, agricultural fields, etc. have led to a sharp decline in both species. Sage Sparrows, Sage Thrashers, Athene cunicularia (Burrowing Owls), Spemophilus washingtoni (Washington ground squirrels), andSpemophilus townsendii (Townsend’s ground squirrel) are all listed as State Candidate Species, meaning that they are currently being considered by Washington’s Department of Fish & Wildlife for listing as either Sensitive, Threatened, or Endangered. Many rare plants are also limited to the Columbia Basin’s shrub steppe such as Erigeron piperianus (Piper’s daisy).

Erigeron piperianus (Piper’s daisy), a plant only found in the Columbia Basin’s shrub steppe.

On top of all the geologic, climatic, and soil factors that influence the distribution of vegetation, human activities have a strong influence on vegetation patterns. Some human acitivity has resulted in complete loss of the shrub steppe. For example, along with development, conversion to fields of wheat, orchards, hops, potatoes, and other crops has resulted in the loss of>55% of the original acreage of Washington’s shrub steppe. Throughout the Intermountain West, overgrazing by sheep and cattle has degraded most of the remaining shrub-steppe with only about 10% thought to be left in good ecological condition. Overgrazing can break up the cryptogamic crust which can increase erosion and provide an opportunity for cheatgrass to gain a foothold. Grazing can also stress-out native plants which did not evolve with native grazers. In contrast to many other grasslands which evolved with grazers such as buffalo and antelope, most researchers believe that the shrub steppe in the Columbia Basin did not support significant populations of grazing animals and consequently is not highly resilient to grazing. The spread of exotic species, which is associated with all of the above human activities, also has its own unique impact on the ecological quality of shrub-steppe. Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass), Centaurea solstitialis (yellow starthistle), Sisymbrium altissimum (tumble mustard) are some of the nastier nonnative species which are quickly displacing native plants and altering key ecological processes such as fire regimes.
Red areas indicate places where human activities have eliminated or severely
degraded native ecosystems. Green areas are relatively intact. Notice the color
of the Columbia Basin. From ‘The Human Footprint in the West.
Ecological Applications, 18(5), 2008, pp. 1119–1139′
The shrub steppe is disappearing. Despite the fact that it still occurs across much of the western U.S., incompatible land uses continue to push the sagebrush ecosystem toward the edge of extinction, especially in the Columbia Basin. Whenever anything becomes rare or unique, it becomes much easier to convince others of its importance. But, by then it is often too late. Why must we wait to lose something before recognizing the pain of its absence? The flora and fauna which evolved with this widespread habitat are suffering. We have choices. We can rearrange our footprint on the landscape in order to make room for other critters or we can continue to make decisions which achieve short-term gain but long-term loss of what has sometimes been referred to as Washington’s inland sea.

Click here to see more photos of Washington’s shrub steppe.



Sources: Daubenmire, R. 1970. Steppe Vegetation of Washington. Washingon Agricultural Experimental Station. Technical Bulletin 62. 131 pp.
Chappell, C.B., R.C. Crawford, C. Barrett, J. Kagan, D.H. Johnson, M. O’Mealy, G.A. Green, H.L. Ferguson, W.D. Edge, E.L. Greda, and T.A. O’Neal. 2001. Chapter 2. Wildlife Habitats: Descriptions, Status, Trends, and System Dynamics. In Wildlife Habitat Relationships in Washington and Oregon (D.H. Johnson and T.A. O’Neal, editors). Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR.
Vander Haegen, W.M., S.M. McCorquodale, C.R. Peterson, G.A. Green, and E. Yensen. 2001. Chapter 11. Wildlife of Eastside Shrubland and Grassland Habitats. In Wildlife Habitat Relationships in Washington and Oregon (D.H. Johnson and T.A. O’Neal, editors). Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR.
Humanism is a rational philosophy which affirms the dignity of each human being. Humanists (1) support the maximization of individual liberty in parallel with social and planetary responsibility; (2) believe that our values, whether religious, ethical, social, or political, are derived from human experience and culture; (3) derive the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions; and (4) assert that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny (The Humanist Magazine).
Some critics, especially those concerned with environmental issues, have noted that humanism has a bias toward self (e.g. human) interest, without regard to the natural world and our fellow species. Similarly, many religious folk can be criticized for believing that the natural world was given to us by divine authority to pilfer at our will and solely for our needs. Those who belittle the importance of Nature to meeting the full suite of human needs have not fully considered the human connection to the natural world.
The well-being of the land has a direct impact on the well-being of Homo sapiens. We derive our material and spiritual wealth from our landscape. Without proper care of Nature, we limit the possibility of an equal or greater quality of life for our fellow citizens, both spatially near and temporally far. As Phillip J. Regal notes in the book Ecohumansim: Environmentalism and Humanism:”the humanist commitment to the ethical and material quality of the human condition means that the earth must be regarded as home and habitat. People’s lives should not be passed off as merely stepping stones to salvation in some eternal beyond.
The Humanist Manifesto III notes that humanists believe in a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a sustainable manner. The contemporary conservation movement is almost perfectly aligned with this perspective. Conservationists recognize that human consumption, which is inevitable, results in unavoidable impacts to the natural landscape. However, we can decide how we distribute the impact of our footprint. Some areas, due to their beauty, recreational opportunities, provision of ecological services, or support of biodiversity need to be protected. Other areas must be open to human use–working landscapes such as rangeland, timber farms, and agricultural fields. This doesn’t mean we utilize such areas haphazardly. We need to tend to these landscapes with foresight in regards to short- and long-term impacts. We need to understand how to best use such resources in a sustainable way, with minimal impact to the integrity of the Natural environment and health of human beings. As such, conservation is the junction of humanism and environmentalism–what some call “ecohumanism.”

Preservation of natural beauty and biodiversity

(whether at small scales (above) or landscapes (below))
is an integral component to ecohumanism
Ecohumanism may require traditional environmentalists, as well as traditional religious folk, to reconsider the human relation to Nature. Many consider humans as being separate from Nature. Even environmentalists, those concerned with the well-being of our natural environment, are often guilty of assuming humans are separate from Nature in order to advocate their position. Specifically, they proclaim that our species’ interaction with the environment is unnatural, despite simultaneously claiming we are inseparable from Nature. We can’t have it both ways. We must be practical, yet not give up on our values. There is no “objective” Nature that exists separate from humans. Our interaction with the Natural world is…natural. Not in the sense that “God gave us dominion over the earth” or that “our impacts are foreign”, rather natural in that they happen. And, they have consequences. Nature has a unique response to our actions.

Working forests: with “legacy” trees (above)

and without (below). Both have been logged
but with different approaches.
In order to determine whether our interactions are acceptable, we must decide whether or not Nature’s responses to them provide and sustain the things we value such as clean water, clean air, timber, minerals, metals, food, beauty, recreation opportunities, spiritual retreats, and sustenance of biodiversity. We can’t have all those things everywhere, but we can have a landscape which balances each of those needs in order to allow us to live an ethical life with the well-being of ourselves, humanity, and our natural world as our primary goal.
This past summer was my first field season working for the Washington Natural Heritage Program. Much of the summer was devoted to traversing the State in order to gain familiarity with the diversity of ecosystems found in Washington, although most of my time was spent east of the Cascades. This video is a collection of images from some of the places I was able to visit.
Travels in Washington State
(Photo credit at the 6:53 mark is J. Clements; 
National Natural Landmark Photo Contest winner)

What’s in a Name?

A large portion of my professional work entails the refinement and application of classification systems to the ecological and vegetation communities found in Washington. The purpose is to compile a list of targets to help guide and prioritize conservation efforts. I mostly use the U.S. National Vegetation Classification, a hierarchical system used throughout the United States and, increasingly, other parts of North and South America. This tool helps us make sense of the patterns we see on the landscape. However, categorization can seem, and often is, trivial. Because of the diversity and complexity of the natural world, life has a natural tendency to pick apart its surroundings and place the pieces into more easily understood or useful boxes. These boxes help illuminate a path toward understanding, whether esoteric or utilitarian. However, the categories we use are constrained by time and space, reminding us that our classification schemes, while useful and maybe even necessary, are subjective lines drawn around a continuous, dynamic, and diverse world.

Ponderosa pine mixing with bitterbrush

Linnaeus gave us a classification scheme that has worked pretty darn well for plant and animals species. Ecologist have not been so lucky. First, there is the complication that ecologists are attempting to distill the complex patterns of interactions among multiple species along with their interaction with soils, climate, geology, topography, etc. into simpler, meaningful units. Plenty of ecological classification schemes have been developed in the past 150 years (or less) but no standardized, globally accepted system, similar to Linnaeus’s binomial system, has emerged. Regional or local terms emerge from varying classification objectives, local ecological expression, and academic philosophy. Depending on one’s specialty, philosophy, or particular interest, ecologists end up drawing lines around the natural world in slightly (or conspicuously) different ways. Although these differences in vocabulary may seem trivial, they often prove to be a reflection of a culture’s underlying philosophy of, and relationship with, the land. In my line of work, we strive to divide Nature only to understand, honor, and to interact with the land in a sustainable way.

Herbaceous bald

We tend to think of Nature as a mechanistic rather than an organic system. It is just much easier to process such complexity if you can visualize its parts. But, as soon as you start organizing, inevitable contradictions arise as our terms don’t always reflect Nature and our models are not as accurate as we’d like them to be. Why? Because, Nature embodies an element of holism which we are unable to account for, either because we fail to see it or we refuse to accept its legitimacy. We humans often find a need to first dissect in order to synthesize information. Such deductive reasoning has allowed our species to survive natural selection rather successfully. On the other hand, stepping back and absorbing the continuous, complex, and beautifully diverse world without names, lines, or boxes, allows one to experience the natural world as it IS rather than what we perceive it to be. Such moments seem to provide the most satisfying form of clarity.

Subalpine meadow giving way to forest

(thus, blurring the line between the two)
Aapa mire is a Finnish term for a large, complex, cold-climate wetland. More specifically, the aapa mire is a fen–or peatland which is supported by groundwater flow–with a very diverse array of internal features. Aapa mires typically have a mosaic of hummock-hollow topography, pools, and sedge (Carex spp.) lawns scattered about. Most aapa mires have some portion which is sloping, even if ever so slightly. This forces water to flow through the

Large fen with aapa mire features in Colorado

mire, as if a river. This creates surface patterning such as hummocks and hollows. Often, the distribution of hummocks and hollows is not random. They occur as parallel features of pool and ridges which are also known as flarks and strings. Sometimes the hummocks express themselves in a more random fashion. Some suspect that certain types of vegetation (mosses or Carex) or freeze-thaw processes may be a driver behind the development of these randomly occurring hummocks. The pools are thought to form when the water table raises above the surface of the mire long enough to kill the underlying vegetation. This creates a situation where peat is no longer being accumulated and, over time, essentially results in a ‘hole’ where pools occur. I have observed pools in places where concentrated, upwelling groundwater occurs…the constant flow of water restricting who can successfully plant their feet. Lawns are flat, monotypic swaths of sedge (Carex) with little or no hummocks. Each of these features result in very different floristic expressions.

Flark and string” like patterns in a basin fen (northern Colorado)
When we pull our observations back to a larger scale, we notice something very conspicuous: all of these features are contained within a large, well-defined area of wet ground. The aapa mire is the macro-scale name for all these things–hummocks, hollows, pools, and lawns (or the plant communities associated with those features)–when they occur together.
Aapa mires, as conceived in Finland, are a common wetland type in the boreal zone. Many occur in Canada; very few in the U.S. Our fens, or mires, simply are not large enough to express all of the features found in Finnish aapa mires. I have seen elements of aapa mires in some large fens in Colorado and am looking forward to searching for them here in Washington. Rarely have I seen hummocks, hollows, pools, and lawns in a single fen but these are, individually, common features of Southern Rocky Mountain mires. However, there is a particular place located in South Park, Colorado which contains them all. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on this place in a future post.

Many aapa mire features visible here
One other small fact about the aapa mire (or fen, bog, or any term you want to apply to a peat accumulating wetland), it is, to borrow a term made famous here in the Pacific Northwest, an “old growth” wetland. Most aapa mires started forming at the end of the last ice age. They are old–very old. They harbor unique plant and animals, many of which are hanging on from an era long ago. As such they deserve an extra watchful eye focused on their proper care and protection. Once gone, we can’t replace them–at least not in our lifetime.

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