Every year one of the four CNPS Chapter Council meetings features a conservation theme. This year’s Conservation Symposium was hosted by the San Luis Obispo Chapter and held in beautiful Morro Bay. The 2016 focus: Climate change and managing California’s native plants, with three main climate change topics: on-the-ground projects; modeling of future vegetation dynamics; and, regional planning. I had the good fortune to attend and I would like to tell you about the presentations, the sights, the people, and the current state of our conservation program. See expanded conference discussion, and more links and graphics on the conservation blog: https://ebcnps.wordpress.com/

Want to attend the next quarterly conference December 2-4th, 2016? You needn’t travel far: the East Bay Chapter and Bryophyte Chapter will proudly co-host in Berkeley. More details soon. We hope you can make it!

Our CNPS Conservation Program Director, Greg Suba, led us straight into the cactus over morning coffee on Saturday. The Bakersfield cactus (Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei), that is. Although receiving federal and state endangered status protections since 1990, and once occupying an enormous range around Bakersfield, it has continued to suffer substantial losses. Ellen Cypher of the Endangered Species Recovery Program at CSU Stanislaus decided on a radical experiment: would Bakersfield cactus succeed if harvested, propagated, and relocated within its historic range? This is known as an assisted colonization experiment. Given that neither inbreeding depression nor significant species differentiation has yet occurred, I thought it reasonable to assist its distribution back into areas where it once existed. Ms. Cypher kindly detailed her extensive harvest selection process, propagation and planting methods.

The climate change prediction process involves calculated guesses at where a species will perform best, given that there are a number of climate change assumptions and models from which to choose. This was the conservation symposium theme—how do we know when calculated assumptions are in a given native plant species’ best interest for survival? We also broached core ideologies behind such work: when is it ever appropriate to colonize? What makes “locally native” the best option? A basic way to start a responsible approach to these questions evaluates impact on source populations and recipient ecosystems, probability of success, and a cost- benefit analysis. (Very different from a group I once encountered, handing out clay-and-seed “flower bombs” at a festival. I looked around for someone to laugh with when they described their mission, which consisted basically of throwing stock birdseed into the forest.) I heard some great questions, and for me, an open inquiry environment is just as important as the presentation content.

Next we heard about an intriguing “common garden” type experiment with valley oak (Quercus lobata), led by Jessica Wright of the USDA Forest Service. We considered how much a plant species’ current strengths are hidden within its populations’ genetic variation, and how these strengths might allow it to survive predicted dramatic changes. Why, and where, are plant populations more at risk to climate change? She guided us with a useful triangle schematic, which showed approaches to study of adaptive genetic variation. Collecting from around the state and immediately planting out these thousands of acorns was an extraordinary effort. I could sympathize with her graduate student researchers, who reported that they had nightmares of racing around the state and making improper collections.

Besides continued inquiry into which climate model is best, smaller details came to light to consider here. When we are measuring successes for an experiment that tests resilience to future climate change how can we accurately measure that success today? For example, which valley oak seedling is most successful for the future? (The taller ones or shorter ones? Those with the deepest roots? Ones with best water use efficiency?) Perhaps the ones displaying maladapted traits today will perform the best in future conditions.

I learned how Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) currently suffers from drought and fire induced stresses, and its intriguing response to “race north” and slowly push its leading edge into ecotype hybridization territory. (“The Race North,” presented by Todd Esque of Western Ecological Resource Center.) Can you believe this giant has a minimum reproductive age of 70 years old? Enormous fire damage in Joshua Tree National Park in 1999 led some to nickname it cheatgrass national park. The Joshua trees responded so poorly that measured “scorching profiles” of even 10% correlated with less than 10% survival rates. This was besides more unburned trees suffering from increased herbivory in drought conditions. Two ecotypes in the eastern and western edges (not defined as different species) grow and fork at separate rates, and each ecotype’s bell-shaped blooms attract different species of moth (Tegeticula spp.) pollinators, all overlapping in the unique Tikaboo Valley, Nevada. The struggle with fire control and recovery reminded me of working on the 2013 Rim Fire burn area near Yosemite, witnessing afterwards its intense damage and waves of floristic beauty. How could we have predicted this seemingly resilient response from the case of the Joshua tree?

How do we document the importance of conservation, distribute the needed information along the most powerful channels, and convince the public to care about our cause? How do we address so many challenges (documentation, distribution, and emotional appeal) with our own adaptive management response? There is a magic to an entire roomful of intelligent and committed people considering and driving forward with these ideas.

It was a treat to delve into this finely tuned research with the primary investigators themselves. I appreciated the emphasis at this Conservation Symposium on openness to questions. Even questions aimed at the foundational assumptions and mission of our organization were fair game, refreshing our collective mindset about the importance of clear and open communication. The whole weekend reminded me of my favorite facet of scientific inquiry: the fact that an experiment that raises more questions than it answers can lead to strong contributions to the field.

We are successful resource champions here at CNPS, but today and within the next year huge conservation battles are being fought around California, setting precedent for the 21st century. I am proud to be contributing on the side of CNPS. I encourage you to join our conservation program with your local chapter.

Urgent Update on Tesla
On October 21, 2016 the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission will likely approve its General Plan and Final EIR for Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area State Park. The East Bay Chapter of CNPS is allied with the Friends of Tesla Park, whose primary objective is that the entire potential expansion area be re-characterized as not appropriate for OHV use.

What are the points our organization wants to make about Tesla? We believe the EIR inadequately addresses the environmental impacts of their expansion plan. We are talking about 3400 acres. Carnegie SVRA currently uses about 1200 acres. The expansion would have huge implications due to both the size of the parcel and the high significance of biological resources present.

The State Parks stated: “No comments received on the DEIR resulted in the discussion of any new impact; resulted in a change in the significance level of an impact disclosed in the DEIR; or required new mitigation, consideration of new alternatives, or any other substantial change to the DEIR.” I am still analyzing for a complete understanding of statements with which our organization does not agree, but already I can tell you there are quite a few issues outstanding. Please see the conservation blog throughout October for updates leading up to the meeting and our suggested letter templates for help in composing comments to submit to the commission.

I hope to make use of upcoming opportunities to discuss the value and priority of Tesla with the Altamont Landfill Open Space Fund Committee and Bay Area Open Space Council groups. The danger of approving the EIR and General Plan in their current form lies in the immediate ability for Carnegie SVRA to implement OHV recreation projects. Because the Carnegie SVRA does not adequately mitigate for its impacts today, we do not believe that it will plan projects so as to enforce avoidance of illegal off-trail riding, protect occurrences of special-status plant species and other valuable biological resources and provide adequate mitigation measures for future projects.

Did you submit comments at the early February meeting? Please examine Chapter 8, Individual Comments and Responses (see Appendix A) in order to confirm that your comments were received and a response given. Chapter 2 Master Responses are a relatively quick read that reveals the commission’s intent to avoid making significant changes to the EIR. Your comments may refer back to one of these Master Responses.

Karen Whitestone
East Bay Chapter CNPS Conservation Analyst