Recently, I spent a sunny spring afternoon strolling around my grandfather’s few acres of oak woodland near Roseburg, OR. There, under the generously spaced oaks and madrones, wildflowers were flourishing. Oregon iris (Iris tenax) was abundant, it’s deep purple petals marked with white, yellow, and ultraviolet nectar guides leading bees to an abundance of sugary fuel. The iris flower has been designed through millennia of evolution to function as a very efficient pollen distribution system. Bees travel down one of three runways between two stacked petals towards their nectar reward, simultaneously rubbing against the anther on the pedal above them which deposits pollen onto the bee. This pollen is then transferred to a stigma positioned at the entrance to the runway of the next flower it visits. Irises even arrange their stigma to face outwards, so that a bee entering will deposit pollen from another flower, but is unlikely to deposit pollen from that flower on its own stigma when backing out, thereby preventing self-pollination.
Nearby is another flower with an interesting pollination method, Dodecatheon hendersonii, a species of shooting star. This is a very easy genus to recognize, it has a perianth that curves backward while the reproductive parts of the flower point out and down, resembling a shooting star. The stamen form a tube surrounding the threadlike, protruding stigma. Dodecatheon offers no nectar reward and so bees visit to collect pollen alone, a food source for them. In order to get the pollen from the stamen, however, the bee must grab onto the stamen and “buzz,” vibrating their body very quickly to shake loose the pollen, a technique known as buzz pollination. Meanwhile, the protruding stigma contacts the bee’s body and picks up pollen from the last flower the bee has been buzzing. Not all bees can manage this pollination style, which requires quickly moving the muscles associated with flying but without actually flapping their wings and flying away. Introduced European honey bees are incapable of this feat and so the pollination of Dodecatheon relies mostly on native bumble bees who evolved the ability to use their flight muscles independently of flight in order to increase their body temperature, allowing them to be active during those cold spring mornings when the honey bees are still tucked in their warm hive.
One plant I was very happy to see was Calochortus elegans, known as cat’s ear. It is one of my favorite plants and Calochortus is definitely my favorite genus (at least at the moment). It is so strange and delicate, with fine hairs growing on the bright white petals and the subtle pink and purple highlights along the anthers and stigma and base of the corolla. I am always excited to see a Calochortus, and the cat’s ear is especially lovely! And, to wrap up this botany party, I can’t not mention seeing plentiful Delphinium menziesii. Another beautiful plant from a beautiful genus—a member of the highly variable buttercup family, Ranunculaceae—Delphinium is ubiquitous in the western US. Also known as larkspur, it has a raceme of flowers with long nectar spurs used to attract bees. Some of the other flowers included: blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense), a Silene species, Dichelostemma capitatum (unfortunately named blue dicks), a desert parsley, woodland star (Lithophragma tenellum), sea blush (Plectritis congesta), Sanicula bipinnatifida (purple sanicle), and some white flower I couldn’t manage to identify, not to mention the grasses, stately Oregon white oaks, and the beautiful and exotic-looking madrone (Arbutus menziesii) with its sprays of small white flowers and strange, constantly peeling bark. This a beautiful spot and proved to be a fine way to spend an afternoon.
These fascinating and beautiful flowers and trees are abundant in this woodland not by chance. Nearby habitat, where one would expect to see a similar community, is lost under Himalayan blackberry, crowded out by lawn grasses, or covered with downed wood. This particular patch of open woodland contains a rich diversity of wildflowers because of the efforts of my grandfather. By removing undesirable or invasive species as they appear, native wildflowers have the opportunity to grow undisturbed as they once did through much of the Willamette Valley. Additionally, by clearing dead timber to use as firewood and preventing new trees from growing when they will overcrowd the woods, something resembling the fire regime that was once so important to oak woodland and savanna is restored. This not only keeps the floor clear for grasses and forbs but also keeps the canopy open or semi-open allowing light to penetrate down to the small plants below. Oak woodlands and savannah alike are vastly underrepresented in Cascadia compared to the vast swatches that one time covered much of the Willamette Valley and the area between the Coast Range and Cascades of Southern Oregon. Once essential for grazing animals and their predators, much of this land has been lost under farmland and development. By tending to the land this way, my grandfather can help a native ecosystem—complete with a thriving community of flowers, a healthy population of pollinators, plentiful grasses, and deer to graze them—can thrive.
This small piece of land in Southern Oregon is a model for private stewardship. There’s no doubt, however, that other people aren’t able to keep up as well with the demands of land stewardship. It can be expensive and time consuming. Encouraging private owners to improve their land, by removing noxious weeds for instance, or planting native species, or clearing understory litter would be a worthwhile endeavor for state or local governments. In situations where exceedingly large tracts of land or particularly significant land is involved, however, I don’t believe private ownership is sufficient. The costs in both labor and administration required are to great and private ownership consistently cuts corners in the name of savings. Also, there is the problem of who will be able to afford the land and the maintenance costs associated with it. As much as people like Cliven Bundy like to complain about paying for grazing licenses, it’s very unlikely any family-run enterprise would be able to own their own grazing land. The land would instead end up in the hands of the very wealthy and corporations.
It also must be said that publicly owned land is meant to be a land of many uses. Giving free range to ranchers would take away from those who are invested in maintaining a natural landscape which can be greatly damaged by unrestricted cattle. The land of many uses concept, however, doesn’t seem to strike a chord for Cliven Bundy, or his son Ammon Bundy for that matter. During the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary meant to protect migrating birds, Ammon Bundy and his followers: removed fence designed to keep cattle out of the refuge to allow free range grazing across the refuge which would undoubtedly do great damage to the bird habitat, used a bulldozer to make a new road straight through a fenced off American Indian archaeological site because there was “just a goat trail before” and “people were slipping and falling,” expanded the parking lot (why?), and dug an open trench which they then filled with their feces. These are not people who respect the land. They have no concern for those of use us who care about migratory birds, or American Indian culture, or basic sanitation. To them these lands are for cattle and damn all the rest. Luckily, our nation has long history of seeing things differently.
On my grandfather’s relatively small piece of land, private stewardship is working. Still, strolling around, looking for cat’s ear, and watching bees bounce from flower to flower, my opinion was not changed. While many landowners take pride in their land and do a fine job in caring for it, these tend to be small, manageable plots or land controlled by well-to-do conservationists or charities. Privately owned, natural landscapes are still defined by clear cuts and slash piles, oil rigs and strip mines, over-grazed pastures and creeks trampled into mud pits. Private land ownership is good at doing one thing: profiting off that land, often to the point of over-exploitation and usually to the detriment of all other uses, including other profit-driven interests—try grazing your cattle on timber company property. Public ownership, with the goal of maintaining the long term health of the land while still allowing its owners, the public, to use it, not just for capitalistic motives, such as raising cattle, but for recreation, wildlife habitat, and beauty is the only practical and fair solution. Public lands grant all of us access to the places we enjoy and love. They allow us all to be stewards and to take pride in the land, as my grandfather does with his few acres. Finally, public lands allow us to maintain irreplaceable landscapes for future generations. Private lands have their place and some are well managed, but owners change, interests change, values change, their protections are fickle and their future unreliable. When it comes to the forests, deserts, grasslands, and mountains I care about, I’d rather trust them to the people.