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Disturbed Ecology

By Isaac Miller, Resource Conservation major
Saturday, August 20, 2011

Going from sleeping on cold hard ground with ants and spiders to waking up on the bottom bunk of a padded bunk bed in a refurbished cabin full of rustic furniture next to a bath house with showers and compost toilets felt like being upgraded from coach with a peanut snack to first class with Pad Thai and Sake on a flight to Bhutan.  Enter Northwest Connections.  The hospitality was nearly distracting for a time, but after breakfast and coffee, I pulled myself together and got ready to meet some awesome new people.

Dave Morris offering a lecture on disturbance ecology.On our first full day in the beautiful Swan Valley, we were joined by the presence of a lovely lady with knowledge and intellect as expansive and diverse as the valley we found ourselves in.  Dr. Karen Wayland, former Climate Change Advisor to former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and current Climate Change Policy Director for The Nature Conservancy, is such lady.  She joined us from D.C. to take part in our course and to offer her expertise.  Her impressive credentials were balanced perfectly with her generous, good nature and her accessibility in conversations with us students. 

Our equally accessible and knowledgeable guide for the day was Adam Lieberg, Project Coordinator, Instructor, and tracker extraordinaire for Northwest Connections.  After hearing Adam talk about the day’s activities, I selfishly wanted to be the one hiking right behind him on the trail to pick his brain about the Swan Ecosystem.  Before we started on our hike, our Northwest Connections facilitator and co-instructor Dave Morris schooled us (and stooped me) with a presentation on disturbance ecology.  After being personally disturbed by my lack of understanding of disturbance ecology, my inner ecosystem proved resilient after delving into the subject more and obtaining at least a generalist’s understanding of it. 

The disturbance discussion framed our hike up to Napa point in the Swan Range perfectly well as we encountered many disturbances along the way.  The hike started out shaded underneath a canopy of Engelmann’s spruce and Sub-Alpine fir for the first half-mile or so before the trail climbed higher and led us into an open spot dominated with Bear grass, Huckleberry bushes, and Fire weed.  Our first stopping point could be spotted from hundreds of yards away where it looked like plastic grocery sacks were covering the ends of some branches on a healthy Whitebark Pine.  Adam explained these were bags covering the new cones of the trees to protect them from being consumed by critters like the Clark’s Nutcracker.

Adam Lieberg teaching us about Whitebark pine ecology.The disturbance of blister rust has been so pervasive in this area that steps like this--selecting for Whitebark pine that show signs of genetic resistance to blister rust--are being taken.  From Dave’s presentation, it would be easy to predict that Whitebark pines would be eventually overtaken by other generalist tree species (Sub-Alpine firs), which indeed is the case, but the fact that blister rust is a non-native introduced species makes this disturbance a considerable case that speaks to the cumulative effects human actions can have on wild landscapes.  It is unclear whether the encompassing disturbance of climate change is related to these blister rust outbreaks, but many others are: increasing wildfires, and pine beetle outbreaks, both of which we saw on the hike.  Unlike the blister rust, these two disturbances have facilitated the evolution of species within our surrounding coniferous forest ecosystem, so the effects of these disturbances are met with increased levels of adaptation and resilience.  Climate change, we learned from Dave’s presentation, can magnify the effects of these disturbances and, consequentially, change the ways our mountain ecosystem can respond to them. 

After a pretty steep incline, we finally reached our stopping point to sit, recap, and reflect on the day.  Adam sat us down and talked to us about, among other things, the amazing co-evolution of the Clark’s Nutcracker and how it can hoard up to thirty Whitebark pine seeds in its mouth before caching them in its secret spot, which it finds later by triangulation.  After a short period learning to identify signs of blister rust, we headed back down the mountain with a feeling of accomplishment.  Having experienced just one exciting day with Northwest Connections, and getting a small taste of the awesome work they do in perhaps the most ecologically important valleys in the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, I find myself wanting to come back for more.