As I was engaging my new crew members in lively conversation, the tall guy’s silver belt buckle glinted in the sun and caught my eye as I bent down to pick a plant from the ground. The buckle had a violin cast onto it. I made a mental note, bookmarking the silver image for later. He was one of the four person crew that had just come down from Montana to help us on Alderspring.
And we needed help. With all of the moisture we’ve been having this spring, it was looking like we could be in for some really tough battles in the War. Plants were growing like crazy. The young men and women that accompanied me in the high timber of Hat Creek bore the uniformed shirts and insignia of the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), an organization modeled loosely after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), originated in 1933. The Depression era Corps employed young men, ages 18 to 25, providing them work on the public lands throughout the cash strapped nation of that time.
The MCC does similar work, and provides an organization for young men and women to work on the public lands. And that’s what we needed. We lease our 70 square mile summer range from the federal government, and we partner with agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service to fight the War on Weeds.
After leading the crew up the 38 miles of tortuously winding old logging roads to their camp on Hat Creek (where they would make their home for the next 2-3 weeks), I had them set up their tents and get settled under the shade of some old growth Douglas-fir trees along the roaring din of Hat Creek. The creek was now a sort of river, swollen with snowmelt…but crystal clear. I wouldn’t hesitate to drink out of its windowpane clear waters. We saw lots of snow still on Taylor Mountain, the highest point on our summer grazing range.
After they had their tents pitched, I gave them the once over: “I would like to take a few minutes to introduce you to the ‘why’ of what we do here,” I said. They gathered up under the shade of a big fir tree. I talked about how the 70 square mile Hat Creek grazing allotment that they were camped on the edge of is mostly pristine wilderness, with intact and fully functional vegetation communities that support diverse wildlife populations including elk, deer, bear and wolves. I told them, because they truly seemed interested, that this area has unique plant communities, and even 5 plant species that occur in this region and nowhere else in the world. And I told them a little of the history of us working with local agencies and the Idaho Department of Agriculture to certify the entire area as organic with the USDA.
As you know, organic means no chemicals…ever. And because our summer range only has weeds along the few two-track jeep trails that traverse it, it is possible for us to control them with other methods besides pesticides. I wanted to communicate to them that the work they were going to be doing maintained this area as certified organic, while effectively dealing with noxious weeds without any chemical use.
Because of the intact and wild nature of the Hat Creek Range we were able certify it as organic in its entirety—70 square miles—in 2005. It is probably the largest certified organic operation in the United States and Hat Creek represents one percent of all acres certified organic in this country.
But in the 12 years since it we certified, the threats from noxious weeds has increased, and federal agencies are mandated to control weeds on their management areas. Because it is a huge area, it cost over $30K to control weeds by hand and through the use of biological control agents like predatory insects in 2016 alone. Some of these costs are born by Alderspring, and everyone here spends a part of their summer on the end of a grub hoe (so it’s not all romantic horseback riding across sweeping mountain landscapes!).
The agencies partner with us by coordinating crews like these young folks to help us. In part, the agencies pass their weed control savings on to us, because they no longer send spray crews on to Little Hat, but the management work of lining out crews now falls to me. It’s one of the things that makes summer work days here “can see to can’t see.”
After a few more minutes of questions and answers, we proceeded across the Hat Creek bridge up the old logging road that traversed the high part of the Hat Creek Range. We stopped where I saw the telltale signs of a light but quite serious spotted knapweed infestation on the hill above us, under the canopy of big pine trees and mixed into a thick understory of vegetation.
“There’s some knapweed on the hill above us. You guys have to remove it. From here, how are you guys going to spot it?” I needed to know if they could detect the clues that betrayed the presence of knapweed plants hiding in the dense forest undergrowth. We had to get them all. Each plant could disseminate as much as 1000 seeds.
Linda, the lone woman on the crew, nailed it. “Skeletons.” She pointed up the steep hill about 100 feet upward to what she was describing. “There are skeletons from last year’s seed inflorescences, poking up through the vegetation.” The other crew members nodded in agreement. They too, had noticed them, and I was impressed that Linda knew the technical term for the flowering head of the plant.
I was elated. My training of my small army would be easy. I showed them how to hand dispatch each plant with minimal soil disturbance. They would be using weed whackers with Kevlar twine to whip the stem off just below its growing point near the ground surface, with surgical precision. I looked up at all of them. “How well do you guys know houndstongue?”
“We saw hundreds of square miles of it up in North Idaho on the Nez Perce National Forest last week,” said Sean. I nodded in agreement. Houndstongue, one of the most obnoxious of noxious weeds has fairly wiped out tens of thousands of acres native plant and wildlife habitat already in the West. It seemed unstoppable. Our houndstongue radar was always on.
“We have less than ten plants we pull every year on the Hat Creek Range over our 70 square miles.” We know where each seedbed is, and visit them every year. One of them is along this logging road over the 12 miles you’ll be working along. “I’ll give a 10-spot to anyone who finds it.”
The crew grinned. This was going to be fun. They were interested, and committed to our preservation of this wild landscape Alderspring beeves call home. We drove a little further, and a down tree blocked the road. I jumped off my motorcycle (gladly, because I had already ridden over 80 miles on backcountry and rough roads) and tried to move it. No go. “You guys got a saw in that pickup?”
“Yep,” Driver Sean said. He grabbed the chainsaw, put on a hard had, gloves, and Kevlar chaps (for leg protection) and cut the tree up. Sawdust flew. The rest of us pulled brush and logs and rolled it off the road. In a few minutes, Sean killed the saw. As he was putting the tool in the truck, he took off his sunglasses and said, “What are the 5 plants?”
“You know—the 5 plants you said lived on the Hat Creek Range. Rare plants. You said they live around here, and nowhere else in the world. Do you know the scientific name?”
I started rattling them off: “Thelypodum repandum, Astragalis amblytropis, Oxytropis besseyi var. salmonensis… I can’t remember the last two names. The Salmon River Wildrye is an Elymus…I think…and I forgot the other one. I’ll have to ask my wife, Caryl.” (Sometimes it’s nice having your own personal PhD plant ecologist to bring ratty plants back to for identification. She told me the last one was Astragalus aquilonius and that the Salmon River Wildrye is actually now no longer taxonomically grouped with Elymus, but is named Leymus salinus ssp. salmonis.)
Sean nodded in interest and some degree of recognition. I was interested too. It just surprised me. Here was a 20ish guy adept at running a chainsaw from Northern Montana…and interested in the Latin names of flowers?
Then Linda collared me and pointed at a wildflower in the pine forest understory. “What’s this?”
“It’s a Phlox.”
She went on: “Are these all the same species? See how different the petals are between individuals?” These were subtle differences that demonstrated that she was an observer.
I smiled. I liked these guys. It was exactly what Alderspring needed, and spoke to what we look for when we hire crews. Diversity. Diversity of interests always made for the best team members. And it didn’t just have to do with ranching or plants or ecology. Even cultural background, or that of pastimes or interests can contribute different types of thoughts to solving problems.
Those crew members are the ones who can actually begin to grasp the complexity of ecological systems, and treat them with respect. They think out of the box. They are observers. Although we can’t even pretend to know everything about how these wild plants function on the landscape, and how they in turn function with the herbivores who eat them, if we respect all the parts and maintain them, we guarantee success of even that which we don’t understand.
I know it’s a long way from a steak on a plate, but I firmly believe that our stewardship of all the complex ecological parts in these wild landscapes actually contributes to the flavor and wellness of the protein our beeves produce, besides just being the right thing to do.
It’s husbandry. In a sense, we are married to that landscape up there. You have to be interested and engaged with what nature is trying to tell you.
As we got ready to move on down the rough logging road, I turned to the tall young man with the belt buckle and fedora hat, as he rolled the last big log down the mountainside. “Do you play fiddle?”
He stood up, dusting off his hands, looking a little surprised at the randomness of my question. “Yes. Sure do. Old time fiddle—Americana.”
“I play bull fiddle,” I responded. It was old time bluegrass speak for the upright bass.
“No kidding.” I grinned. “We’ll have to get together sometime.”
Americana fiddle man nodded, smiling. Yep. Diversity. This crew would fit right in to Alderspring and our pursuit of maintaining the wild aspect of natural systems and the food they produce. And maybe we’ll understand just a little more.