Wildlands Conservancy rebuilds after Sawtooth

Wildlands Conservancy rebuilds after Sawtooth

1 November 2006

published by www.hidesertstar.com

Yucca Valley, CA, USA — “The devastation was enormous,” is the long and short of what Pipes Canyon Preserve Manager April Sall says about the Sawtooth fire’s impact on The Wildland Conservancy’s property here.

Frankly, there’s nothing she can say that proves the point more than will a quick look at the landscape.

Where once the hills behind the preserve’s visitor center supported a continuous cover of dense vegetation, now there are only barren slopes, black with soot.

Of course, even the keenest eye won’t see the entire burn of 30,000 acres from any one location in the preserve, and it takes a little background to know that this is all but about 5,000 acres in the preserve’s entire range.

It also takes a little botanical knowledge to know why some of the preserve’s most iconic plant species may not reappear. The increased aridity of the Mojave Desert over the last century has caused some shift in the range of certain plants, such as the juniper and piñon pine.

No one is willing, however, to utterly dismiss the possibility that these or any other particular plant species might recover on the site and, in fact, what people could learn about the plant ecology in the area during its recovery from fire is a key element in management planning for the preserve’s immediate future.

It will be an ideal site for research into fire ecology and fire’s effects on wild lands, says Sall, and preserve personnel are busy developing educational components on fire ecology which will allow them to quickly put the preserve back to work as a valuable environmental education resource.

Sall and the preserve’s education coordinator, Caroline Conway, are both excited about the new research and education prospects that are developing out of the destruction.

They have an opportunity to make important contributions to the knowledge base on fire ecology and natural land recovery, they agreed, and both demonstrate the preserve’s commitment to an optimistic and educational future.

Not that there isn’t a lot of plain hard work to accomplish in the recovery process. Trails need to be rebuilt and water crossings restored, all directional and interpretive signs have to be replaced and a new solar power system has to be installed.

A light rain right after the fire produced enough runoff in the creek and on the landscape to wash out some of the trail structures. It also demonstrated how susceptible the canyon is now to flooding. Preserve personnel worry about visitor center facilities, and about the restoration work they’re already doing in that area.

Unique Gardens in Yucca Valley helped the preserve acquire 200 to 300 plants from a project property in town that has a permit to remove the plants. Mostly yuccas and cacti, the plants are being transplanted along the road into the visitor center and in the immediate vicinity.

Sall said the preserve is not undertaking a massive restoration effort and will let nature take its own course, which is consistent with the preserve’s policy.

She also happily reported that resprouting, “is more vigorous than we expected it would be,” and again framed the disaster in positive terms by emphasizing what might be learned from watching and documenting the recovery process.

Although the preserve will be closed to the public throughout the winter, staff members will be busy working with schools in various ways to carry on with its educational interests.

Working with Joshua Tree National Park and the Living Arts Center in Yucca Valley, they are preparing a schedule of fire ecology programs for public schools, and have made arrangements with Yucca Valley High School’s biology and environmental science teacher to conduct field studies in restoration and rehabilitation on-site during the school year.

Plans are to reopen in the spring with new information available to the public about the fire’s effect and the preserve’s progress of recovery.

In addition, the management team will be focussing on its Mission Creek site this spring, which is located just north of Twentynine Palms Highway near its intersection with Interstate 10 in the low desert.

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