In my last article, I focused on positive stories related to invasive species from a recent camping trip in the Sierra Nevada. This time I want to talk about the invasive species problems we encountered.
Our route took us 800 miles south on I-5 before we turned left toward Sequoia National Park. The Oregon and northern California stretches of the highway were pleasant and scenic, as highways go. Somewhere south of Sacramento the scenery went to hell. Not only was the air a sickly yellow-brown and the pavement in terrible condition, but yellow star thistle and Russian thistle dominated the non-crop landscape. It was ugly. We couldn’t wait to get out of there. At the southwestern edge of Sequoia National Park, a promontory at 6,700 feet (Moro Rock) has an interpretive panel about the deterioration of air quality that has diminished the westward viewing distance from more than 100 miles when the park was established a century ago to just a few miles today. Thankfully, the eastward view from the same spot, toward the Great Divide, is still spectacular.
The State of California eliminated their noxious weed program this year due to budget cuts. That’s a worry; our staff considered them valuable allies, especially in the area of biological control. Somebody needs to pay attention to the weeds in California, especially in the Central Valley where one-fourth of the food America eats is grown. If they don’t, hell is going to spread. There is one silver lining—ODA hired the best of the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) laid-off staff, Carri Pirosko, to take over Ken French’s territory (now retired) in southwestern Oregon.
While I’m on the subject of weeds, one of the few weeds noticeable in national parks was cheatgrass. There wasn’t a lot of it, but here and there along the roads and trails, it existed, a reminder of the many invasives waiting in the wings to dominate any landscape. We also encountered a lot of prescribed burning in the forests. Numerous signs explained how the sequoias and other conifers are fire-adapted and how fire improves the forest’s health. I wonder how cheat grass is going to fit into that picture? It is fire-adapted, too, and extremely invasive. Watch out!
Firewood was also on my mind. In my last article, I mentioned seeing commercial firewood sold in boxes with labeling that included origin information and assurances that the contents met California air quality standards. It was $8.50 a box, not too bad considering it was bigger than a typical bundle, clean and easy to handle, and it included kindling and fire-starter (the cardboard). Other stores were selling firewood for $5.00 to $5.50 per dinky bundle (5-6 sticks). No wonder people like to bring their own.
Someday I hope there is a standard for all commercial firewood so that it is either locally produced or heat-treated to kill insects and plant diseases. Another alternative we should consider is the system used in Canadian National Parks. On last year’s camping trip, we visited Alberta and British Columbia. There they charged us $8 extra for a campfire, but then we had unlimited access to a huge pile of firewood in the middle of the campground. They even provided wheelbarrows! No worries there about people bringing bug-infested firewood with them.
Next, I need to mention cars and crowds. Did you know there are traffic jams in Yosemite? The parking lots are jammed, vultures are circling, and shuttle buses, where they exist, are stuck in traffic jams with all the cars. It is great that people are out enjoying our parks, but we need to get smarter about getting people to the parks and getting them around in the parks. More roads for more cars is not the answer. From an invasive species point of view, roads are pathways and cars are vectors. We need better and smarter transportation alternatives.
Lastly, I have a confession to make. Counter to our Buy It Where You Burn It campaign, I took my own firewood. I didn’t even think about it when I packed our car, and the California border inspector didn’t ask or didn’t notice it. Probably he would have let us keep it anyway, as it was all scrap lumber from carpentry projects—very low risk. Scrap lumber is another issue we’re going to have to deal with as we craft Oregon’s imported firewood regulations. Invasive species exclusion is always harder than you’d imagine. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I’d rather face our challenges than those of our neighbors to the south.