The Double Cone Quarterly
Window to the Wilderness
Winter Solstice 1998 || Volume I, Number 3

By Dave Nelson

Local residents and public agencies have been working fervently to control the most invasive non-native plants we're seeing along Highway One in Big Sur and, more and more, in the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness Areas. Some weeds confine themselves to frequently disturbed areas (like fennel on the roadside or horehound in grazed area). Others invade undisturbed wildlands or wildlands subject to natural disturbance (like fire or flooding) and these threaten wilderness ecosystems.

French broom (Genista monspessulana), pampas grass (Cortaderia jubata), sticky eupatorium (Eupatorium adenophorum) and cape ivy (Delairea odorata) (formerly known as German ivy) are four invaders that are threatening the diverse assemblages of flora and fauna which contribute to the unique beauty and character of the Ventana Wilderness and the Big Sur area. These plants often form monocultures and can eliminate the diversity that makes healthy homes for big and small, two and four legged animals. These exotic plants have a kind of unfair advantage over the native plants. The natives have evolved in place over millennia in an ecosystem with checks and balances which create diversity and provide adaptability to changing environmental conditions like floods, fires, insect invasions and climatic changes.

The distribution of plant species once expanded slowly by winds and floods and from animal and human eating habits and migrations. Now modern humans move plants and their seeds quickly all over the globe to grow food, for ornamentation or by accident. Unfortunately some of these plants have gotten away from us and these, without the animals who once ate them, the other plants that once competed with them, and the insects that periodically gnawed them almost to oblivion, are spreading across enormous areas. This rampant migration and its global impacts are disrupting agriculture, natural ecosystems and, in Big Sur's case, marring the vegetation mosaic that contributes so much to the scenic beauty of the area.

Biodiversity is a buzzword these days and it applies here. Biologists know that as an ecosystem loses more and more of its species - whether plants, animals, flatworms or molds, the less healthy that ecosystem becomes. Monocultures tend to fail. Farmers know this - if you keep planting corn in one field the borers will move in and you lose the crop. A forest planted in just one species of tree might fail completely when the right pest moves in.

The large land holding public agencies in the Big Sur area have formed a task force to deal with exotic plant problems. We should be thankful for this and offer support, but they move with the glacial speed of all bureaucracies. While the Highway One corridor will remain a weedy "disturbed area" from development and road maintenance and never resemble a pristine ecosystem, we can keep an eye on the trails into the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness Areas and slow down if not stop the invasion on that front. Direct eradication is essential but be aware that feed for pack and livestock and lug boot soles can carry problem plant seed. Trail maintenance or fire suppression activities cause disturbances which favor invasive plants.

Some of us have worked on the lower stretch of the Kirk Creek /Vicente Flat trail over the last few years and pulled LOTS of french broom on the 'Barbree piece', named for an agent of Wm. Randolph Hearst's who bought up parcels in the area for Hearst to build his empire. Michael T. Kirk owned a parcel here and likely ran cattle as does the current grazing leaseholder, the great-great-grandson of Vicente Avila himself. The cattle haven't been present for 6 or 7 years now, but even this previous low level disturbance spread broom over a few acres of coastal prairie and scrub and the last few years of high rainfall have germinated countless thousands of new plants in the areas we cleared. The cleared areas in scrub seem to resist re-invasion somewhat but the coastal prairie, now mostly dominated by non-native annual grasses, is particularly vulnerable and more and more every year converts to monotypic 'broom scrub'.

This lower trail area, mostly below the inaccurately placed 'Ventana Wilderness' wooden sign, will probably never be broom free. The Monterey District of the LPNF now is in the process of environmental clearances to use herbicides in the Forest to eradicate invasive non-native plants in the district and this is a target site. This drastic and seemingly paradoxical step may be the only way to slow or perhaps even stop the invasion of these plants into the Wilderness. My experience on this trail has convinced me of that. However, we can stop or control by hand three small broom patches further uptrail which are in the Wilderness proper, and if you know where they are you can stop and pluck out the seedlings which will be popping up.

In the first deep canyon traverse about a half mile up in the SE corner of section 23 I have seen a few dozen broom plants over the years. There were none there in mid-November '98, but this lower 1 1/2 miles were just trail-worked this summer. Such work, along with hikers, equestrians, cattle and birds, undoubtedly can spread the seed that causes pioneer populations.

There are two more small patches further on in the NE corner of sec. 23 at about the 1500 foot elevation in two shady (maple and bay mostly) canyons. If you have Schaffer's green trailguide these are in the extreme lower left corner of map 24. I cleared these second patches this fall except for a few plants in the 'middle' spot which were above a rocky overhang and simply beyond my capabilities (any rock climbers out there?). There may be more areas along this trail that I've missed.

Additionally, friends tell me that there is broom deep in the wilderness at Ventana Camp (on a spur off of the Pine Ridge Trail) and on the Coast Ridge Trail at the intersection of the trail to Upper Bee Camp (likely from fire fighting activities during the Rat Creek Fire of 1985).

Let's draw a line in the sand and keep this stuff from invading the Ventana. Let's not let these plants infiltrate and make the Santa Lucias look like a highway in Ecuador, South Africa or the Canary Islands. The entire world is becoming more and more homogenized as we all tune into the same channels and are fed the same lines over and over again. There is an analogy here. Humans too are animals in this ecosystem. As the flora goes, so goes the fauna.

For Further Information on the Topic:

The Nature Conservancy's Wildland Weeds Page

California Exotic Pest Plant Council

UCB's CalPhoto Project: California Plants and Habitats
(to which credit for the photograph of French Broom at the top of the page goes)

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