Going Native

Grass aliens menace Mount Palomar

Greg Rubin: "There should be monkey flower, coffee berry, sage, and wild roses growing in under those oaks."
  • Greg Rubin: "There should be monkey flower, coffee berry, sage, and wild roses growing in under those oaks."

The cold rain, propelled by a strong northwest wind, lashes against our faces. Each icy drop feels like a pinprick as it hits my cheeks. We're not dressed for this. Native plant landscaper Greg Rubin and I are wearing short-sleeve cotton shirts as we tramp around on Palomar Mountain looking for grass. "I got a tip from a guy I know that CDF [California Department of Forestry] may have spread rye grass seed up here in this burn area to try to stabilize the soil. I had to see for myself if it was true."

The area we're hiking in burned last summer when Santa Ana winds blew a local man's trash fire into surrounding brush and up the mountain, scorching hundreds of acres. Now, the ground beneath us is black with soot. Bare burned sticks stand where the plants of the mountain chaparral used to be. But at the base of these plants, new growth, three or four inches tall, has formed. "That's called stump sprouting," Rubin explains. "Those sprouts will go two to three feet, maybe more, in a year."

Between the burnt-out plants, tiny droplets of the misty rain cling to the leaves of wild peony, several species of lupin, wild hyacinth, Canterbury bells, and wild cucumber — all native plants — poking up through the black soil. Rubin is delighted to see them. "After a fire," he explains, "the soil is very rich in carbon, and these wildflowers thrive in it. The problem is, it's also the perfect environment for grassy weed infestation."

Rubin isn't delighted to see nonnative brome grass and a low, spreading plant called filaree along with the natives. "Still," he says, "they're not in high concentration, and I'm happy to say that I don't see any rye grass here at all."

Rye grass is nonnative, and to a native plant enthusiast such as Rubin, planting it on Palomar Mountain would be an ecological disaster. He explains why: "When you introduce grass into a native plant system, it can spell catastrophe because grass attacks native plant systems and changes them. Almost instantaneously, this chaparral community up here could be type-converted to grassland."

On the way up here, Rubin abruptly pulled his car over onto the right shoulder of Highway 76 to show me an example of this effect in progress. "See that crap over there?" he pointed to the other side of the road where four or five live oaks stood in the middle of a green grassy pasture. It looked kind of pretty to me, but Rubin was clearly disgusted.

"That's what happens when grass takes over a native community. That should be oak woodland over there. There should be monkey flower, coffee berry, sage, and wild roses growing in under those oaks with bare ground between them. Instead that area has been used for grazing and the grass has taken over. You can see over to the right, in that rocky area which is too steep for the animals to walk in, the native foliage is still hanging on. That's what it should all be like. The Native Americans tell stories about being able to walk barefoot for hundreds of miles on the dirt between the bushes. But the Spanish came and burned a lot of the native vegetation and planted grass for grazing livestock. Now that grass is everywhere."

Mount Palomar is one place where grass hasn't taken over. "It's kind of an ecological island," Rubin says. "There is a very clean chaparral community up here, and there are some plants that only grow here. So to plant grass up here would be to risk destroying one of the last pure native plant communities.

"Government forest agencies," he continues, "will often spread seed over burned areas like this under the theory that it stabilizes the soil and prevents erosion. But there are no environmental impact reports, no major studies to support that theory, and, in fact, there's a lot of evidence to the contrary. It's been shown that, before the widespread introduction of grass in California, the burn rate for most areas was once every 250 to 500 years. But since most of the state has been converted to grassland, the burn rate is about once every 10 or 15 years. So planting grass after a fire just leads to more fires and therefore more erosion problems. If they would just let the native plant community come back after a fire, it's root systems would develop and hold the soil together."

Behind us, 2000 feet down the mountain to the southeast, Lake Henshaw spreads across the San Jose Valley floor. In front of us, the mountain looms up, its peak shrouded in clouds. We keep walking uphill straight into the driving rain, looking for signs of seeding. We're not finding any. "There are some nonnatives here," says the heavyset, bearded Rubin. "But I don't see any direct evidence of seeding. Either CDF didn't seed this particular area, or they didn't seed at all. If that's the case it would be interesting to know why."

Next day, a call to the CDF reveals that they couldn't have seeded Palomar Mountain because it's part of the Cleveland National Forest and therefore under United States Forest Service control. I called the USFS administrative office in Rancho Bernardo to ask if any seeding had been done. "We did do a limited amount of seeding on Palomar Mountain for erosion control purposes," Joan Wynn, Forest Service Public Affairs officer, responded. "It was done by hand in areas with a high potential for erosion. The total area seeded was less than five acres."

Wynn said she didn't know exactly what seeds were used but says Forest Service botanists "use a mix of seed appropriate to the area. Our standards and guidelines state that we can only use native vegetation seed. We get the seed from reliable local sources, and we request that it be weed free."

Bert Wilson, owner of Las Pilitas native plant nursery in Escondido and an authority on native vegetation, says he's heard that one before. "They say that every time, but what they mean by native isn't what it should be. If they seed at all, it should be done with seeds taken from plants in the specific area of the burn. But you can't find seeds like that in bulk so, to do that, the Forest Service would have to have somebody whose job it is to harvest those seeds directly from the plants year round so they could stockpile them in case of postfire seeding.

"The next best thing would be to seed fire-following wildflowers native to that general area of California. But seeds like that cost $25 to $35 per pound, and it takes six to ten pounds to seed an acre. That's too expensive. So what they end up doing is using much cheaper grass-type seed such as Cucamonga brome, which is called native but is questionable. Nobody really knows if it's native to California. The thing is, some grasses were introduced by the Spaniards so early that we don't know if some that we see are native or not. We do know that brome grasses are taking over the coastal sage and chaparral of the state at an alarming rate and that it's burning more and more often, every year in some places."

Greg Rubin wishes the Forest Service would "get out of the seeding business altogether and let nature do its thing. It's expensive and it's just not necessary. There's such a strong seed bank in the soil already. They could just leave it alone and let those seeds grow. Instead they want to go up there and spread their 'native' seeds and risk contamination with weeds, which usually make up at least a small percentage of any seed mix. In that postfire soil, those weeds will run wild."

Wilson adds, "There's just no documentation to support the practice of seeding for erosion control. I know, I've looked for it. Every study I've seen comes back either neutral or against seeding."

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