Thursday, November 13, 2003
Keyt Fischer skitters down a trail toward Devil''s Canyon in Big Sur, flashing past tree after tree after tree. Behind goggle-like glacier glasses, she gasses and steers a rugged, red and somewhat loud machine called a mule--sort of a hybrid of four-wheeler ATV and jeep--over a path carved into the contours of steep ravines and high ridges. It crawls up hills but gets going pretty good on the flats.
Hidden beneath a makeshift wooden shelf hung from the mule''s nose is a sticker marking it as an official State of California vehicle. It has a roll cage and a short cargo deck, where one of her assistants, Kevin Pietrzak, stands upright, gripping the roll bars above Fischer''s head. He ducks low branches and tries to stay warm in the morning autumn chill.
Halfway through the bumpy 35-minute ride, Fischer yells back over the sound of the grumbling motor: "Almost everything you see in the forest here is a host for Sudden Oak Death."
Fischer cuts a petite figure, even in the baggy desert camouflage pants she wears in the field. She''s got double Ph.D.s, in anthropology and biology, from Harvard, for which she spent five years solo in the remote rainforest of Papua New Guinea, studying rainforest canopy ecology. As the only one for miles with any sort of medical knowledge, she also served as an ersatz bush doctor. She spent enough time there that she refers to it with easy familiarity, calling it "PNG," as if it was the local electric company.
Back in the US after years in "PNG," Indonesia, South America and Burma, Fischer''s in Big Sur studying the slow and sudden death of a forest.
With financial backing from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), she and a team of young researchers are trying to figure out why the California coastal forest is dying, and when it dies, what that will mean for the wildlife that depends on it for food and shelter and life. They''re based out of the University of California-administered Landel''s Hill Big Creek Reserve, and rely on the generosity of neighboring property owners to broaden their research area.
Less than 10 years ago in Marin County, large patches of oak trees began withering en masse. It took until just a few years ago for scientists to identify the fast killer: Phytophthora ramorum.
Known commonly as Sudden Oak Death (SOD), Phytophthora ramorum is a water mold, believed to have been introduced from overseas. It has gone from being suspected of slaying hundreds of trees in Big Sur three years ago to being found guilty of slaughtering thousands of trees there now.
It has spread from Marin north into Oregon. It''s all through Big Sur, considered by current research to be one of the worst infections in the state.
SOD was believed to have reached its southern limit at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. That was until this year, when it was found to have leap-frogged another 20 miles down Highway 1 to a place near Gorda called Plaskett.
SOD is a lethal exotic contagion with no cure. Less than a decade into its killing spree, it has already begun to devastate the Big Sur habitat. And it''s only going to get worse.
The night before striking out on the trail, after a dinner of fish and wine at the team compound on Whale Point overlooking the Pacific, Fischer offered a prophesy of doom.
"We''re so early in our understanding of this epidemic. I really don''t know what''s going to happen. What did Churchill say? ''This is the beginning of the beginning''?"
Photo by Andrew Scutro: SOD researcher Keyt Fischer with an improvised acorn collector.
There''s a tree stump as wide as a refrigerator at the trailhead. It sits in a wide part of the jeep trail like a natural monument, sawed off at both ends. How it got there is not immediately obvious, but it marks the entrance to Devil''s Canyon, where Fischer and her crew will spend the morning. On the way out, Fischer and Pietrzak follow a second mule carrying the rest of the WCS research crew.
En route to Devil''s Canyon, Kelson Baird, who grew up in southern Big Sur, and Leila Hadj Chikh, who has a Ph.D. in evolutionary ecology from Princeton, drop Kerri Frangioso off at another ridge so she can finish an inventory of acorn silos--known as granaries--built and stocked in dead tree snags by red-headed acorn woodpeckers.
The team''s research is based around acorn production by oak trees in Big Sur in an attempt to figure out how Sudden Oak Death affects the ability of tanoaks and Coastal Live Oaks to drop their seeds.
Acorns are vitally important to the forest ecosystem. For one, the trees rely on them for reproduction. If the trees aren''t dropping seed, they eventually go extinct. But while trees are dependent on acorns for propagation, so too are the inhabitants of the forest.
If an animal doesn''t eat acorns, it probably eats an animal that eats acorns. They are the bread and butter--or just the bread--of the forest life cycle. Take them out of the equation and animals either starve, get displaced, or adapt.
With tens of thousands of tanoaks dead and dying with alarming quickness, every creature in Big Sur could be in trouble.
But while SOD has infected the forest from Oregon to San Luis Obispo County, it has not yet penetrated Big Creek State Reserve, where Fischer''s team does half of its work. To determine just how the disease might affect the habitat of Big Sur''s woodrats, squirrels, coyotes, deer, bobcats, mountain lions, birds and insects, the team has launched a long-term survey of acorn production in SOD-free Devil''s Canyon and for comparison, SOD-devastated Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
With Frangioso off counting acorns in woodpecker-pecked snags, Baird, Pietrzak, Fischer and Hadj Chikh set off down the trail into Devil''s Canyon.
In 1999, this entire area erupted in flame during the devastating Kirk Complex Fire and the scars are still evident. After passing through fire-thinned forest at the top of the ridge, the team begins a steep descent into the thick-canopied canyon, an area also known as Canogas. Baird and Pietrzak soon peel off and Hadj Chikh and Fischer head all the way down to the bottom, where a creek cuts beneath towering redwoods.
"Fusing the link in people''s consciousness about the consequences for wildlife and the wildlands is really what this is about," Fischer says. "Nature''s animals and plants are really going to suffer."
To collect the evidence, the team devised a grid pattern spread over two hectares across the creek bottom and climbing up the ravine sides. Every 25 meters, they''ve set up their homebrewed acorn collector. Set within a tripod of half-inch PVC tubing sits an inverted black mesh cone, set around a metal hoop on the wide end. It funnels down to a thicker PVC-tube, which empties into an upside-down flowerpot with a hole cut in the bottom. The open end of the pot, facing down, is closed off with wire screen, which can be pried off for acorn collection. Once a week, they come out to count acorns, dividing the work into the upper and lower halves of the grid.
There are 90 collectors here in Devil''s Canyon, and the same number in roughly the same topography in Pfeiffer Big Sur, along the Buzzard''s Roost Trail. Strangely enough, the infected forest has been literally spewing acorns, while the healthy forest has been stingy.
One theory might be that the dying tanoaks devote all their energy to acorn production. "Maybe when they get to the point they know they''re going to die, they give it one last push," Fischer says. "You go out with a bang."
Photo by Jane Morba: Acorn production cycles could provide clues into the behavior of Sudden Oak Death.
Earlier in the year, in a related study, the WCS team set out survey traps for mountain lions across the creek on a high feature called Miners Ridge. To inventory the local mountain lion population, they set out 90 trap devices concocted by another WCS scientist, John Weaver. The trap consisted of a shiny foil lure and a patch of carpet studded with dull nails and doused with scent. The lions would approach the lure and rub on the carpet, much in the way a house cat rubs itself on pantlegs and furniture. They leave behind wads of cat hair that''s then analyzed.
The worry is that a mass disaster in the forest will ripple through the ecosystem, displacing even the animals at the top, like the mountain lions. As soon as they finished the lion study, the team had to set up the acorn survey.
"Because the oaks and tanoaks are so important, the potential for cascade effects across the ecosystem are huge," Fischer says. "It''s like pulling apart a spider web. The strand you have is attached all the way across and you didn''t even know it was connected."
The team has grown close working together. Hadj Chikh continues the thought, "If they die..." and Fischer finishes it, "...there''s nothing left in the pantry."
Once in the grid, Fischer and Hadj Chikh set off counting the debris in each collector. They have to clear out leaves and twigs to get the acorns and caps. If there are any. As they scramble up the crumbly hillsides, they call out their results to each other, as Fischer records them in a yellow plastic hard-cover log.
"Ninety-two had an acorn," Hadj Chikh calls out.
"Nothing else?" asks Fischer.
Good. In a healthy tanoak forest, researchers believe, it''s feast or famine; a bumper crop of acorns is produced one year, and in the following year (or years) only a few.
For all their two hours of work, Hadj Chikh and Fischer make their way back up the ridge with one acorn. The monotony was broken up toward the end when Hadj Chikh walked through a swarm of particularly pissed yellow jackets that crawled into hair, jackets and pants. It made the trip up back up the hill a bit faster. But it was worth it. Hadj Chikh pulls a plastic bag out of her pocket with the sole acorn inside. She did her Ph.D. work on acorn hoarding by gray squirrels around Princeton, and she smiles at the girth of her Canogas acorn.
"It''s more than I got last week," she says. "It''s a surprise from last year, but no one knows what''s usual for tanoak."
There are so many unknowns about the disease, trying to solve it is like criminal forensics, and following the killer is like a murder mystery. The members of Fischer''s team are gumshoes in fleece and heavy boots.
It''s such a mystery, they believe now they''ve found another pathogen related to, but not exactly the same as Phytophthora ramorum, which causes SOD. Crossing a stream, Hadj Chikh walks eye level into a Bay bush that''s full of it. Like SOD, Phytophthora nemorosa forms in the downhill sides of leaves, where water collects. She plucks a handful and puts them in a plastic baggie.
"These are a symptomatic leaves," she says. "We''ll test them."
Almost every tree in the forest is on the infected list, though some are more susceptible than others. Bay laurel trees are particularly virulent hosts, known as reservoirs. It''s believed that humans and animals act as vectors, immune transporters of the disease, much in the way that fleas and rats distributed bubonic plague in the Dark Ages. Hadj Chikh tells a morbidly funny urban legend about a forest ranger who retired to some mountain town up north and brought the disease to his golden-years home. When SOD was found in Plaskett this year, the WCS crew did a quick deduction.
"It was right by the road, and we found two symptomatic trees near a campsite. I wonder who brought that in?" asks Hadj Chikh with a suspicious smile.
Photo by Jane Morba: Hikers and campers are believed to serve as unwitting human vectors of SOD.
Fischer''s team isn''t the only group of scientists chasing down SOD. There''s a multiagency group called the Oak Mortality Task Force, which provides an informative Website and information clearinghouse, www.suddenoakdeath.org.
Two UC scientists are at the forefront of the research, Matteo Garbelotto at Berkeley and Dave Rizzo at Davis. They''ve published a recent report called "Sudden Oak Death: Endangering California and Oregon ecoystems." It provides the most up-to-date information about the disease, noting among other things that moisture from rain and fog is believed to be one pathway, and that "the pathogen has a broad host range that encompasses almost all woody plant species in coastal forests."
The report also hypothesizes that "heavy rains during several years in the mid-1990s, including El Nino periods of 1993 and 1998, resulted in widespread infection and increased mortality of oaks two to three years later."
In an interview, Rizzo warned that a massive die-off in Big Sur could dramatically change the very nature of the place. He compares SOD here to similar infestation of jarrah trees in western Australia. Vast eucalyptus forests were reduced to grasslands in a matter of 80 years. With a handful of invasive species such as pampas grass becoming more prevalent, on top of SOD, the potential for a Big Sur that''s not Big Sur looms on the horizon. Dead spots in the forest create vulnerable spots for other species to exploit, creating new patterns in the ecosystem.
SOD is often compared to the chestnut blight that swept through Eastern forests early in the 20th Century, and Dutch Elm Disease, which erased once majestic trees from Massachusetts to New Jersey. Right now, the pattern of SOD''s spread remains patchy, but Rizzo is not optimistic.
"In the long term we may see changes in this pattern," he says.
As for the original perpetrator, Rizzo and Garbelotto have concluded that it might have come from an Asian ornamental tree like a Rhododendron. It''s been discovered in Europe, but analysis found it to be a separate strain. It could have come in with a nursery plant, or on a branch stuck in some trekker''s backpack. They just don''t know.
"We know it''s in Europe, and we know it''s in California," Rizzo says, "but when we look at the evidence we know we didn''t give it to them and they didn''t give it to us. It suggests there''s some third unknown place that gave it to both of us."
Earlier in the fall, news of a possible remedy was released. A fungicide used in Australia was found to protect individual trees, but its application to the entire California coastal forest is both financially and physically impossible.
Still, the work continues. Lucia Briggs, of the Oak Mortality Task Force says, "Research is flying forward in a number of areas, and it focuses on finding a mechanism in these trees that protects them in some way."
Modest red and white signs have been posted at trailheads in Big Sur warning hikers and riders that they are potential vectors. Although the sign is clear and stern, it''s easily ignored by the uninterested. A park ranger stationed at trailhead parking lots would be the most effective tool, but, as Fischer noted, "Where in the state budget are we going to find the funds to do that?"
Funding for SOD started with $70,000 from the University of California and $85,000 from the Forest Service in 1999. Two million dollars was allotted in the 2003 state budget, and last year, in addition to other initiatives, $3.8 million in federal money was dedicated to decoding the SOD genome. As Fischer says, it''s been found in almost every species of plant and tree in the forest, including redwoods and the economically critical Douglas fir.
Stopping the spread of SOD with the public is at a passive level. The following message can be found on signs at Big Sur trailheads.
This deadly organism is killing tan oaks, coastal live oaks, California black oaks and Shreve''s oak along California''s coastal environment. It also infects and grows on other trees in this area including bay, madrone, rhododendron, big leaf maple, huckleberry, buckeye, manzanita, togon, redwood and Douglas fir.
Ona recent weekday afternoon a dozen hikers passed the sign at Pfeiffer Falls trail in a half hour span. Not one stopped to read it.
Photo by Andrew Scutro: The Big Sur Wildlife Conservation Society research team: Kevin Pietrzah, Keyt Fischer, Kerri Frangioso, Kelson Baird and Leila Hadj Chikh.
Their work in Devil''s Canyon finished, the WCS crew climbed back on the mules and headed to Whale Point for a halftime break. Inside the cabin that serves as their project headquarters, dining hall and dorm, they read the newspaper, eat sandwiches, pasta and cheese and crackers. After spending the morning in SOD-free Devil''s Canyon, they have to convoy back up the coast to Pfeiffer Big Sur to check their traps along Buzzard''s Roost trail.
Compared to Devil''s Canyon, it''s been raining acorns in the second grid. Before heading out, they change into a second pair of boots to prevent spreading the disease themselves.
Up at Pfeiffer they park at the lodge, cross the highway on foot, and duck down under the bridge and onto a trail along the Big Sur River. It''s getting dark. There''s about an hour of sunlight left and the inside of the forest will be even darker. Hadj Chikh and Pietrzak take the grid closest to the highway while Frangioso and Baird head down the trail.
Frangioso spent the morning counting woodpecker holes and acorns in granary snags. She and Baird set out to collect acorns way up the hillside, off the trail. Eventually they separate to check traps, climbing hand over hand up the steep slope. Some traps are visible to passing hikers and Frangioso has pulled out trash, bottles, rocks and all kinds of junk.
As she checks one trap a woman hikes down from the ridge. She''s got on a pink windbreaker, a desert hat, shorts, boots and pack. She''s alone. Her name is J. Epstein and she''s a teacher from San Jose.
"Oh, now I can ask someone what you''re collecting," she cheerfully says to Frangioso, who tells her about the research.
Epstein had read the anti-SOD sign at the bottom of the hill. When some hikers uphill had cut the trail to get around a fallen tree, she told them to be careful about spreading the disease.
"They got kind of ticked off at me," she tells Frangioso. "Am I the only one who reads it? What is it? A parasite or a bacteria?"
"It''s a water mold," Frangioso says.
"Oh great! At least it''s not something I''m allergic to. Hopefully they''ll find a cure. Or maybe we''ll have a fire over here."
Epstein trucks on down the trail and eventually Baird and Frangioso meet up at the last trap. Baird pulls out an acorn that''s a whopper. They''ve got eight or so in a bag, but this last one may break the current record of 13.7 grams. They get fired up about this one acorn because they want to find something in their traps, but knowing that it proves that the forest around them is dying quickly takes some of the fun out of it.
With the sun down and the forest dark, it starts to get cold. They''re done counting acorns for the day, and Hadj Chikh and Pietrzak regroup with Baird and Frangioso. It''s sort of perverse. A good day of acorn picking--they collected 20 in all--based on the do-or-die production theory, is actually bad.
But collecting acorns is what they''re doing and today they got a big fat one. "Check this out guys," says Frangioso, whipping out the new contender, ovular and thick.
It''s nearly impossible to tell if trees are merely infected, but it''s obvious when they''re dead. Besides the leaves turning color forever, the trees actually ooze sap, or as the WCS crew says, the trees are "bleeding." In fact, so many tanoaks are dead in this part of Pfeiffer it''s dangerous to go in there when it''s windy because a branch could blow down and bean one of the researchers.
Just a few steps from the highway and all up the hill, the devastation is obvious. It looks like someone had lit off a tower of dynamite that just mowed down patches of forest. The dead gray trees tangle up on top of each other making a jumble of limbs and trunks. One tree perched alongside the river leans over as if unable to stand upright much longer. It had been particularly bountiful. It''s a goner too.
"This tree was producing huge amounts of acorns this year. This tree is dead," Frangioso says.
"It will be in the river next year," Baird says.