Environmental Issues Class Overview

Having fun identifying trees.  Is it a Douglas or a White Fir?  Hmmm...
Having fun identifying trees. Is it a Douglas or a White Fir? Hmmm…

Hello from Cohort 6!  We just finished our first class of the program: Environmental Issues.  Because most of us are from places other than Oregon, Stewart (our professor) decided to focus heavily on natural history and plant identification.  How can you fully appreciate the issues if you don’t know about the ecosystem – right?

This summer class was divided into four 8-hour long field trips:

Day 1:  Wagner Creek

Immediately, we were thrown into plant identification.  In this mixed hardwood – conifer forest (AKA the fire forest), there are Douglas Fir, Pacific Madrone, Ponderosa Pine, Ocean Spray, Pacific Dogwood, Snowberry, Thimbleberry, Wild Rose…the list goes on.  It was a little overwhelming, but it gets easier.

As we wandered, we discussed fire ecology and forest management.  Sorry Smokey the Bear, but fire suppression isn’t always the answer.  Stewart was surprisingly sympathetic toward loggers while we talked about forest management.  Let’s be realistic – we all use tree products (paper, pencils, doors, guitars).  We need to work with the timber company to develop a method that is sustainable and cost-efficient.

We learned how to take a tree core sample and count the rings.  Stewart showed us how to estimate the age of young conifer trees.  He pointed out every single bird that he heard or saw (he’s an ornithologist).  We examined a partial cut and a clear cut forest.  The clear cut forest extended all the way down to the bed of a creek.  Our minds were full and the eight hours passed in a flash.

Day 2:  Green Springs Mountain Loop Trail

We hiked in a snow forest!  There was no snow.  It is called snow forest because it of its higher elevation.  I’m sure there are blankets of snow in the winter.  We walked briskly and urgently listened as Stewart pointed out new plants (White Fir, Phantom Orchid, Medusa Head, Bottlebrush Squirreltail, Serviceberry, St. John’s Wort…).

As we sat eating and staring at the smokey sky, we learned about rangelands and Oregon geology.  The natural rangeland grazing animal of Oregon is the grasshopper.  These grasses are not adapted to large mammals stomping around tearing off all the flowers before they can reproduce.  The geology of the Siskiyou (“Sis-kew”) Mountains and Cascade Mountains is best described as a car crash and TNT.

Each student was responsible for researching and presenting an environmental issue.  Some of the issues included: old growth forest, the endangered spotted owl, dam removal on the Klamath River, invasive species, riparian buffer zones, bioremediation with fungi, and reintroducing predators.  Our presentations were spread out over the next few classes.

Kimberly and Kristin show off the latest fashion in googles while studying macro-invertebrates.
Kimberly and Kristin show off the latest fashion in googles while studying macro-invertebrates.

Day 3:  Little Butte Creek and Upper Table Rock

Give me a net and a creek and I am in heaven.  We caught mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, water pennies, crayfish, blood worms, and a leach.  Using chemical kits, we measured the dissolved oxygen and pH.  The creek, we decided, was healthy.

Stewart introduced one of the Natural Science Kits that the SEEC office lends to teachers for free.  Inside, there were nets, identification books, chemical testing kits, tubs, everything that a teacher would need to lead an experience in the water.  There are many different types of kits for different subjects.

The Upper Table Rock was HOT.  We were entering the chaparral and oak savanna.  The white oak tree, I have decided, is the most hardcore tree in Oregon.  It will grow in the hottest, driest areas.  The common fenceswift lizard scurried by our feet as we marched up.  Stewart was saying something about how the table rocks were formed by lava and the Rogue River.  That was millions of years ago, but it sure felt like we were sitting on lava.  Temperature aside, the views from the top are incredible.

Day 4:  Deer Creek Center

Serpentine…I had never heard that word before I came to Oregon, but after exploring Deer Creek I will never forget it.  Imagine a forest of Jeffery Pines.  Now light it on fire.  This is the serpentine environment – sparse, struggling vegetation, and scorched-looking soil.  (Don’t be confused – serpentine ecosystems only look recently burned.)  The soil is full of toxic metals and completely lacks nitrogen…who could be crazy enough to live here?

The California Pitcher Plant!  Instead of soaking up nitrogen from the soil, this plant takes nitrogen from eating insects.  Yes, a carnivorous plant.  You won’t find these on all serpentine soils – only where there is some moving water.  Next fall, Cohort 6 will show off these plants to eager young students during the fall in the field program at Deer Creek.

It was a whirlwind introduction to Oregon’s major ecosystems and environmental issues.  I realize, once again, how little I really know about the natural world.  I am excited to keep learning.

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