Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Return of the Dwarf Cinquefoil

From the December issue of Appalachia!

The view from Mt. Monroe takes in a remarkable juxtaposition of wilderness and civilization. To the north, Mt. Washington is grand and daunting yet subdued beneath the summit buildings. Lakes of the Clouds Hut cuts a lower profile in the col between Washington and Monroe, but it stands out in among the alpine tundra. The western approaches to the Presidentials are awash with human structures, while away to the southeast stretches the isolated Dry River Wilderness.

Close at hand is the slender Crawford Path, a route popular with parents and thru-hikers for its gentle circuit around the pyramid-like peak of Monroe. It passes Monroe Flats, 5,100 feet high and conspicuous for its level and patterned surface. Across several acres, strips of vegetation alternate with rust-colored lines of broken rock and soil, giving the Flats a terraced aspect. An avenue of pebbles cuts it through the middle.

This site is home to the Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla Robbinsiana), a tiny flower species unique to the White Mountains. Its name comes from the French, meaning five leaves; the leaflets, which are serrated, often occur in threes as well as fives. Its flower is a bright yellow.

At once hardy and vulnerable, the Dwarf Cinquefoil has adapted to a unique combination of geomorphology and climate. Wind whips across its habitat, stripping cover and exposing the ground to scouring from snow and ice as well as opening it up to winter sunshine. The frequency of freeze-thaw cycles is what makes the site unique. Water seeps into topsoil and freezes, expanding and thrusting rocks and plants out of the earth. Subsequently, in a process known as solifluction, the disturbed soil and rocks coalesce into stripes, giveing Monroe Flats its unusual terraced appearance.

Most alpine plants, though adapted to the severe climate in the Presidentials, succumb to the constant exposure and freezing and thawing on Monroe Flats. Dwarf Cinquefoil, actually a member of the rose family, is the exception, with 95% of its population existing in that one area. Its small size, usually less than two inches tall and wide, and paucity of roots make it vulnerable to competition from bigger plants in more clement conditions, but in the alpine zone and particularly Monroe Flats, minimalism is an effective survival strategy.

A tiny patch of Dwarf Cinquefoil also survives in the Franconia Range. Most alpine plants in New Hampshire grow in Labrador, but not the Dwarf Cinquefoil—its niche is severely limited.

It is therefore particularly susceptible to disturbances other than freezing and thawing. Unsurprisingly, interaction with humans has not been healthy for the plant, at least until the last twenty years. In fact, our relationship with it is remarkably representative of society’s evolving attitude toward the natural world in general. Once nearly collected and trampled into extinction, Dwarf Cinquefoil is now making a resurgence thanks to local, Federal-supported, stewardship.

Besides a few hardy explorers, the first visitors to the alpine zone were tourists and botanists, whose ranks ballooned upon the completion of the first railroad to the White Mountains in 1851. American botany was then so young that many alpine flowers were undiscovered and unnamed—a treasure trove for those with the interest, funds, and resolution to attain the peaks’ higher recesses. Many of the first botanists were amateurs, but they made up for their inexperience with extraordinary energy. As Laura and Guy Waterman wrote in Forest and Crag, “It is conceivable that between 1825 and 1848…the Presidential Range was hiked more intensively, albeit by a tiny band of dedicated men, than it has been in any generation since, when almost everyone sticks to established trails.”

Thomas Nuttall discovered the Dwarf Cinquefoil, but James Oakes gave it its Latin name, honoring James W. Robbins, another botanist. Many early botanists gave their names to the landscape: Oakes Gulf, for instance, or Boott Spur and Tuckerman Ravine. Originally, these monikers were possessive, as in Oakes’ Gulf. Over time, convenience has had a shortening effect.

In those days, botany was as much a matter of collection as observation. As a stroll through any older natural history museum will demonstrate, scientists vied with one another for the most comprehensive collection, whether of rocks, plants, or animals.

Being rare and difficult to get at, Dwarf Cinquefoil was particularly prized. Indeed, some botanists supported their scientific excursions by selling specimens to collectors. In 1993, a researcher found 850 specimens of the plant in collections around the world.

An even greater threat to the Dwarf Cinquefoil was the Crawford Path, which originally ran straight through Monroe Flats and remains etched into the landscape—a straight, rocky line testifying to the slow pace of recovery in the alpine zone. Ethan Crawford, the legendary innkeeper in Crawford Notch, built the Path in 1819. Though large portions of it have been moved, it is the longest continuously used hiking trail in the US.

Crawford, remembered as the stereotype of a mountain man with his ragged hair, remarkable feats of woodcraft, and eccentric personality, was also a shrewd businessman. With his father, Abel, he built the Crawford Path (in addition to another trail which roughly followed the same path as the Cog Railway) for adventurous guests who might wish to walk—or, in later years, ride horses—to Washington’s summit and back. Conveniently, they would also have to spend a couple of nights at his inn and maybe even hire him as a guide.

What with the heavily-used Crawford Path and the less popular Dry River Trail, which ran through Monroe Flats on its descent into Oakes Gulf, it is perhaps surprising that the Dwarf Cinquefoil managed to escape extinction. A 1973 census of Monroe Flats counted 1,801 plants larger than half an inch in diameter, and ten years later, its numbers had dwindled to 1,547. Between zealous botanists and the backpacking boom of the 1960s, the plant population was declining to unsustainable levels.

Officials realized that without prompt action, the plant would soon decline below the minimum population necessary for survival. In 1980, they finally designated its critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act, providing impetus for several steps to protect the plant. First, to mitigate human impact, trail crews relocated the upper part of the Dry River Trail entirely away from the plant’s habitat and moved the Crawford Path to the edge of Monroe Flats. They then built a scree wall along the trail’s edge to discourage people from stepping off. Finally, a pair of signs was posted to inform hikers about the plant’s fragility and warn them to watch their step.

Results were dramatic. According to an AMC study, 10% of hikers stepped off the trail the first year after relocation, but since then, levels have dropped to 2%. An effort to educate passers-by was initiated, led by the croo at nearby Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Lynne Zummo, an earnest veteran of several seasons on the AMC’s hut croos who worked as the Naturalist at Lakes in 2006, says, “While the vast majority of people who come through Lakes have no clue about it [the Dwarf Cinquefoil], those who do, or [those who] learn about it while at Lakes, take an interest in it. I always thought about it as one more thing that connects people to the place, making them want to both return to and protect the area.”

Another strategy in the rehabilitation effort is transplanting. Before 1980, attempts were made to transplant the Dwarf Cinquefoil to 20 different locations in the White Mountains, but all failed because suitable habitat was so limited. Since then, there have been about a dozen tries. In recent efforts, seeds are gathered and taken to the New England Wildflower Society’s seed bank at Garden of the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts. Some are placed in storage, while others are germinated and held for two years, when they are planted, keeping the soil surrounding the roots intact. Success has been elusive, but transplants have survived in two places of note: at a new spot on Washington and at a new site along Franconia Ridge.

By 1992, Monroe Flats had over 3,000 plants, and 4,575 in 1999 (the censuses include plants wider than 14 mm. as numbers of smaller specimens vary dramatically according to season and climate). An original colony along Franconia Ridge, thought to be extinct, was identified in 1984, though it is only a tiny remnant of a larger population. This patch has been so eroded by hikers on the nearby Franconia Ridge Trail that the remaining habitat is unlikely to be viable in the long term.

Ultimately, while education, transplants, and habitat studies have played a role in the Dwarf Cinquefoil’s resurgence, “The recovery is largely a result of the habitat and population being left alone,” says Doug Weihrauch, an AMC staff scientist and alpine ecologist.

In 2002, using census data and other observations, the Fish and Wildlife Service deemed that the plant’s recovery was strong and danger of a relapse low. Consequently, they proposed and eventually did delist the Dwarf Cinquefoil as an Endangered Species, with the strong support of the AMC. Since the plant is entirely on Federal Land, it remains protected by USFS and state regulations forbidding its damage or removal. The Endangered Species Act also requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor a species for five years after delisting.

During the summer of 2006, the designated census was taken, finding 4,777 Dwarf Cinquefoils growing on Monroe Flats. While the original population of plants on Franconia Ridge is unlikely to survive, the new transplant site is doing well—numbers have increased from 135 in 2000 to 165.

Though transplanting is for now mostly over, the AMC will continue moving new plants into the viewing garden site. According to Weihrauch, “This location has very limited, and probably sub-optimal habitat, but the idea is to establish a few plants here for education purposes, and so that those wanting to see/photograph the plant can do so without impacting the population.

“We will continue to collect seeds, at least for the next few years, for storage in a seed bank,” continues Weihrauch. “We will also conduct another count of the Franconia Ridge transplant population next year, even though it has increased overall…we want to make sure that the declines are…not the beginning of a trend.”

Despite the ever-growing number of visitors to the alpine zone, the Dwarf Cinquefoil’s future is brighter now than at any time in the past 30 years, thanks to the efforts to educate the public and minimize hikers’ impact on Monroe Flats. It is a hopeful but precarious balance, and one that will require vigilance in the years to come.

Photos: Monroe Flats, from Mt. Monroe (Ben Lewis), the DC up close, Lakes croo relaxing on the roof with Monroe and Monroe Flats in the background, and the DC up close again.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The West Texas landscape in film

The two films that have received the most critical attention of the holiday Oscar season are the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Curiously, both were filmed in West Texas. As I have pointed out in earlier posts, it is a stark landscape, exceptional for its aridity and harsh, piercing, and beautiful light. In short, it is well suited to stories with biblical themes, which is undoubtedly why the Coens and Anderson chose to shoot their movies there (the Cormac McCarthy novel on which the Coen’s movie is based also takes place along the border, while There Will Be Blood, adapted from a muckraking Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!, is set in Southern California).

Spending Christmas at home in New England has increased my awareness of the contrast in landscapes. West Texas certainly has something in common with the Plains—the absence of trees means that the entire sky is visible, making one feel far more insignificant and exposed than in a hilly, forested place. On the other hand, such panoramas can be inspiring and liberating. No wonder that Marfa, a few score miles north of Big Bend, is an artists’ haven. It has been suggested that both films are “great American movies;” in that these stories of men who encounter great opportunity but ultimately are undone by greed evoke American themes of capitalism gone wrong, such adulation may be deserved. Certainly the acting of Daniel Day-Lewis and Josh Brolin is superb, though the Coen Brothers short-change character development by evoking themes of fate.

Quite a few developers have tried to make a fortune in West Texas, and most have failed. The landscape destroyed and was destroyed by the cattlemen of the late nineteenth-century. Too dry for open range grazing, its fragile grass ecosystems were ravaged by cattle before the cattle themselves died of thirst or cold or were shipped away to greener pastures. Even now, the semi-desert is mainly populated by invasive species, though there are efforts to bring back the native grasses. Abandoned fencing, homesteads, and various short-lived adaptations are now important features of the landscape in their own right.

Somehow, the light of West Texas, in its intense fragility, evokes the fleeting nature of human settlement out there. This quality is not unique only to West Texas—I’ve noticed it also in Idaho (it is omnipresent in Napoleon Dynamite, where it evokes the austerity and loneliness of its characters, behind their hip humor). Quite likely it is present throughout the American West, and indeed the dryer, more rugged regions of the world. Perhaps that is why country music, with its reliable and comforting themes of love and family, is so popular among inhabitants of these rather desolate places.

Such light, like these two remarkable movies, suggests that it is hubris to inhabit such places permanently.

These pictures are all from Big Bend National Park. The large rock mesa is Casa Grande, in the Chisos Range, while the pool of water amidst rock walls is part of the nearby Window.