Piute Mountain: A Sky Forest

Piute Mountain is on fire right now. Last night the Piute Mountain Fire was reported to be 11,500 acres and burning fiercely [here]. It has and surely will grow much bigger, searing most of the Piute Plateau.

The Piute Mountain Fire from the Bakersfield area.

Already the fire has consumed several structures in the French Meadow and the Moreland Mine areas. It also burned through the Nick Williams Boy Scout Camp. The historic town of Claraville may burn, incinerating 100-year-old cabins.

But more than human history and use is being incinerated. Piute Mountain is a special place in the botanical world.

The Piute Plateau is at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada. The summit at 8,325 feet overlooks the Mojave Desert to the south, Scott Mountain and China Lake to the east, the Kern River canyon to the north, and the San Joaquin Valley to the west. As situated, Piute Mountain is a sky forest, a high elevation treed plateau surrounded by lower elevation desert regions.

During the Ice Ages the Piute Plateau was a nunatak, an isolated refugia for vascular plants surrounded by ice and tundra. And today it is isolated again by deserts. As a result, the plant community on the Piute Plateau is like no other in the world.

Among the special plants that grow there are the Piute cypress, Pringles yampah, Piute Mountain jewel-flower, Piute Mountain navarretia, and Kern River larkspur.

Piute cypress (Cupressus arizonica var. nevadensis) occurs in the 700-acre Bodfish Piute cypress grove. From Alison Sheehey, “Nature Ali” [here]:

The Bodfish grove is the premier location of the eleven known Piute cypress groves and the largest and oldest colony. Thousands of trees of all ages grow in this arid chaparral and Douglas oak woodland. Trees average a lifespan of 200 years but can live considerably longer. The oldest tree is estimated to be between 500-600 years old.

Growing up to 45 feet tall and up to 29 inches in diameter, the Piute cypress is a fire dependent species. Occasional fires help with germination and clear out thick chaparral vegetation which can inhibit succession. But hot fires can destroy groves as evidenced by the lack of re-growth after the 1970 Breckenridge Mountain fire. In 1921, a non-devastating fire burned 200 acres in the Bodfish grove yet over the past 80+ years the trees have re-grown up to 16 feet.

The Piute Mountain jewel-flower (Streptanthus cordatus var. piutensis) [here] is found in only four or five areas, but mainly in the same vicinity: an extensive colony in and around the Bodfish Piute cypress grove.

For some wonderful photos of Piute Mountain wildflowers and insects, see Nature Ali’s “single day’s adventure to the Piutes for photography and butterflying” [here]:

Much botanical work in the area was done by Ernest C. Twisselmann, who wrote A Flora of Kern County, California published in 1967 [here]. SOS Forest contributor and former Sequoia NF District Ranger John Marker recalls Ernest:

Twisselmann was a rancher to survive and a botanist for his calling. Ernest was a fine person and I would call him old school in manners and temperament. He gave me a copy of his Wildflowers of Kern County guide, which I treasure, and I valued his help. He was not a lock it up and throw the key away type, more like Wendell Berry in philosophy and wisdom.

Twisselmann recognized the unique composition of the Piute Mountain flora, and sought to educate others about it. He was recognized as a botanical champion when a reserve was named in his honor, the 860-acre Ernest C. Twisselmann Botanical Area on Sirretta Peak in the eastern Kern Plateau next to the Domeland Wilderness [here].

Twisselmann was also instrumental in changing the management approach of the US Forest Service on Piute Mountain. From John Marker again:

The Piute is a 6,000 to 7,000 foot-high sky forest and isolated from the rest of the Sierra by deep broad desert valleys. It does (did) have some unique characteristics in its plant and animal community not found in the larger mountain range.

Human habitation of the mountain was rather limited, a few miners tried unsuccessfully to get rich from gold, and a few ranchers used the mountain meadows for some cattle and sheep grazing. But after no riches were found, and grazing turned out to be a very iffy venture, most people left. The only lasting features were a few mining cabins on claims and a very primitive road system.

Over time the FS had a presence with a small guard station and then timber sales in the late 60’s and early 70’s. When I came to the area in late 1969 the controversy about timber cutting was starting to build, primarily about clear cutting. We had some small clearcuts on the mountain in areas infected with mistletoe or bug kill. However, we ended that after a couple of people (Enid Larsen and Ernest Twisselman) with solid credentials in the study of Southern Sierra forest ecosystems took me by the hand and showed me why we needed to change our ways.

So we changed our ways and made sales with the objective of improving the chances of the forest stands surviving fire, insects, and disease. We used individual tree selection and small group selection when there was no other alternative. We were not appreciated by the FS timber people who were under intense pressure at the time to “get the cut out.” However, there was some support from the powers that be, and since the Piute was isolated and looked like Southern California, we were pretty much left alone. The other help came from the primitive road system. It was a six hour trip to the mountain from Bakersfield and almost eight from the supervisor’s office in Porterville. I was also blessed with several timber management officers who saw the big picture of the forest in the sky.

That was over 35 years ago, and I have only been back to the Piute once since I left the district, about 25 years ago. After that visit I was reasonably pleased with our silvicultural efforts. Unfortunately, appeals and lawsuits designed to stop forest management on the Sequoia over the past several decades, including the Piute land, has pretty well negated efforts to manage the forests. The final blow was the loss of sawmill capacity which has dried up the market for the trees that would have been cut to restore the forest.

However, all around the mountain the flat land with water was developing into the dreaded recreation and retirement subdivisions. I figured it was only a matter of time until one of the frequent fires around the mountain’s base made it to the forest zone. With the current fire, luck has run out. By the latest information I have seen about the fire size and location I am guessing at least 70% of the forest zone has been burned, and I am guessing severely burned. So, maybe a thousand years from now the forest will make it back, but in the meantime it will be a symbol, in my opinion, of human stupidity and the lack of any real environmental ethics when it comes to forest management.

The USFS has changed since knowledgeable and capable foresters like John Marker retired. The current personnel no longer seem to understand or value sky forests. In 2006 another sky forest, the Kaibab in Northern Arizona, was burned to death in a WFU (wildland use fire) called the Warm Fire. Other sky forests in Arizona and New Mexico have been severely burned, including rare forests on the Gila and Coronado NF’s.

The “fire is natural” one-size fits all current mantra (mania) of the USFS is very destructive. One fire is NOT like another; each is unique and the forests and landscape they burn in have unique characteristics. With the fuel loadings of today, many forests need to be prepared to receive fire so that they do not incinerate completely. Sky forests especially need preparation through fuels management. Without restoration forestry, sky forests burn in hot summer fires with near total combustion. The ecosystems are altered when common brush and invasive weeds invade following the severe burns.

Sky forests have been refugia for hundreds of thousands of years, special areas where neither the surrounding ice of the glaciations nor the surrounding desert desiccation of the interglacials has extirpated the unique flora and fauna. But they cannot withstand the foolishness and insensitivity of modern human institutional management.

Good stewardship is more than abandoning land to the holocausts of Mother Nature. This is our planet to care for, and we need to take better care of it. Sky forests would be a good place to start.

2 Jul 2008, 8:10pm
by bear bait

People just have to get it through their heads that government agency people don’t care like they did when they lived there for years at a time. Today, the whole of it is a carpetbagger deal, and that is what unions and deep bureaucracy is about. The old Rangers cared and took personal pride in how they did things. Today it is put a template over it and cancel out all that does not show up in the pre-drilled holes. Need a new Forest Supervisor? We got a dandy lawyer working for the Justice Dept who wants a change of scenery. She can be the new SO.

When Bill Clinton fired Dale Robertson, and put a biologist in the Chief’s job to advocate for the end of logging, it all became about politics. If there is a problem with fire in California, then you ought to be asking Speaker Pelosi about it, or Senate President Harry Reid. The answers are all political. The forests and ranges and deserts are now politically managed, even micro-managed, as per Montana Senator Baucus’ sweet deal for Plum Creek Timber in the Farm Bill, a $500 million dollar arranged buy out of Montana PCT lands by the State and NGOs, all financed by the US Treasury, and charged to farmers. Oh, and lest I forget, there was a little tax item in that Farm Bill from Baucus: Weyerhaeuser got a $182,000,000 tax reduction this year. They got their timber cutting taxes reduced from 35% to 15% without having to go through the REIT process of corporate reordering. All this from the Democrats for Big Timber by way of the Trust for Public Lands and The Nature Conservancy, both beneficiaries in the same Farm Bill Baucus insertion.

Of course, the USFS budget is getting reduced, and what is there is being robbed to fight fire. Those dadgummed politics again.

3 Jul 2008, 8:14am
by Mike

It is more than a question of politics, graft, sweetheart tax refunds to big business, and barking incompetence in government service.

The question is whether we wish to be good stewards of the planet or to roast our most precious landscapes in hellfire.

Yes, our senators and representatives are sick boobs dancing on strings for sex and money. No doubt about it. The most disgusting pimps and whores in our society are in Congress. You get no argument from me.

But we still must take responsibility for our landscapes. We obviously can’t count on those crooks to do it. We must do it ourselves. We cannot sit back and say that because Rep So-and-So is commie moron, therefore we must incinerate our watershed. That is no excuse for abandoning our responsibilities.



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