The Restorationist

Today we had a wetland design session in the morning, followed by an afternoon of prepping sites for seeding. My GIS (Geographic Information Systems) skills are coming in handy for the wetland stuff. If you're thinking about doing anything environmental and have a chance to take a class in GIS, do it. Its one of the most useful skills in the world, it will make you think in a whole new way, and it will get you jobs. With my mad skillz, I was able to get into the base GIS server and pull out a contour map, a vegetative communities map, and several areal photos. It took 30 minutes and impressed everyone around me.

I found a book on creating prairie gardens, and it had this really cool drawing of a planting that was laid out on a grid, with different species planted in randomly selected blocks. So, I took one of the areal pictures of the pond and the surrounding wetland area and laid a grid over it to make what I call a "design grid." Its like graph paper for landscapes! Justin is coming up with a wildflower mix for us to plant, poring through catalogs, native plant lists, and growth charts to come up with something that will grow in full sun, enjoys wet areas, and will bloom through out spring, summer, and fall. In other words, we're having a raging good time.

After our design session, we went out to look at the sites we need to seed before we get too far into June. John showed us how to tell a good site from one that needs to be mowed, cleared, and seeded. The strategy is to get a decent stand of native grasses all over the place and worry about the wildflower component later. Bruce mowed, Justin used the lawn sweeper, and I had a rake to get the small stuff. Ten minutes in, Justin drove the lawn sweeper into a hole that was covered up by grass clippings. As we were trying to fix it, Bruce had the idea of borrowing a big blower that we could use to uncover future holes. Turns out, the massive backpack blower is just as good or better at removing grass clippings than the sweeper! That thing was amazing, like having the power of Wind in your hands. We got the sweeper fixed and prepped a decent amount of area before heading home.

As I was driving the sweeper (max speed 5 mph) back to the shed, I had an epiphany: I am doing exactly what I want to be doing in life. Keep the mix of design, management, and direct work going, and I'm gonna be one happy little Restorationist.

From left to right: Restored native grass (about 3 yrs old) native buffalo turfgrass buffer around trail, area we just seeded with native grasses

Justin on the lawn sweeper, prepping some sites.

My farmer shadow.

Texas Horned Lizard ROUND UP!!

Today we held a Horny Toad roundup! (if you want to annoy a Texas Horned Lizard biologist, call them horny toads... works every time) We got about 20 volunteers to sweep an area of habitat that is going to be developed in two months. The goal was to collect as many of the lizards as we could so we could relocate them to a new home. Too bad we only found one new lizard. :( However, we did find box turtles, snakes, and a legless lizard! Check out all these pics:

Ray explains to the crowd what's going on.

Form a line!!! Its like we're on a military base or something...


* Source: The horned lizard picture was taken by Ben Goodwyn and found at

Why Burning Rocks

Since all we did today was clean up a native flower bed, I'm gonna take this opportunity to talk about one of my favorite topics: prescribed burning. Although many people think of fire as a purely destructive force, its actually necessary for many ecosystems to exist and thrive. For example, Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) cones are sealed with resin until fire melts it away and releases the seeds. This plant not only withstands fire, it needs it to reproduce! How cool is that? Also, Wikipedia rocks.

In our current system, the North American Prairie, fires have historically been started by lightning and have kept the system as a Prairie by burning off the cypress trees. Once Westerners came (ironically from the east), we started suppressing fire all the time. This let the cypress trees take over, which you would think was a good thing except for the fact that they tend to grow in single species stands which have way lower biodiversity than the prairie itself. In the last few years, ecologists have realized that since we can't just let wildfires run, well, wild, we have to recreate the fire regimes of the past by starting the fires ourselves. These prescribed burns are usually really controlled, with fire breaks built before they start. They keep invasive species out, help regeneration and allow you to reseed an area without having to clear it with, say, a leafblower.

But perhaps one of the coolest and weirdest aspects of these systems that need fire is the surprising fact that they might actually store and sequester just as much carbon when they are burnt than when they aren't. You would think burning a grassland or cypress forest would be a net release of CO2, but you'd probably be wrong (silly you). This is because as long as regeneration is allowed or even encouraged, the fast flush of new growth quickly makes up for the carbon that was lost by sucking it up to build stems and leaves and roots. Of course, this is a really, really new area of research, so I could be wrong (silly me). Anyway, I've got to go to bed ridiculously early so I can start ridiculously early like the "real" adult I'm becoming.


On Friday we seeded three different sites with native prairie grasses!!! Planting is the most exciting part of any restoration project for me, so I get really excited when I physically help to put seed in the ground. After all the blowing and raking by hand, Bruce (one of the field laborers) let us know that there was a machine called a lawn sweeper that could do the stuff that took us 20 minutes in about 2. YAY! Basically, the machine has metal brushes under it and kicks the mowed clippings up into a bin, which you can then dump when it fills up. I'm wondering if there's anything useful we could do with the clippings, such as feed them to animals as hay or use them for erosion control. The second option might introduce things we don't want to new areas though.

Once we had the sites prepped to seed, Bruce came over with his tractor and used a no-till drill native grass seeder to plant the native mix. The machine is actually designed for the fluffy texture of native prairie grasses! We planted a mix of western wheat grass, side oats gramma, blue gramma, switchgrass, indian grass, little bluestem, and big bluestem. Seven species isn't bad in terms of an initial planting, but a real prairie would also have non grass herbaceous species like wildflowers and such. John's methodology is to get these grass species established first, choke out the invasives, and then figure out what to do about other native plants. We tossed around ideas on how to do that, everything from planting wildflowers after a prescribed burn to just hand seeding in open patches.

I asked John about how prescribed burns have gone over on base, and he told me a story about the first meeting between him, the fire marshal, some commanders, and an expert on prescribed burns that John had brought in. As the expert was setting up his powerpoint, the fire marshal said "Before you start, I just want to make it clear that we are completely opposed to this. We're here to put out fires, not start them." The quote basically sums up the attitude that people usually face when they try to do prescribed burns. After the presentation and a bit of wrangling, John was able to convince the commanders to do some burns. He said it was one of the most fun projects he'd ever undertaken!

We also viewed one of the most unmanaged portions of the greenway, a 50 meter stretch of the trail that is dominated by invasive and exotic trees. John thinks that these particular trees took a much bigger hit from an ice storm we had earlier in the year because they were exotic, an argument he's using to convince the base that only native trees should be planted from now on. If native trees are more resistant to storms, they're easier to maintain and will last longer. He asked us what we thought he should do with the area, and I half jokingly suggested that he simply burn it and start over. I guess the half joking part was lost on John and Justin, because they actually considered it seriously! Its true the the place had so many exotics that cutting them all out would involve cutting almost all the trees, so maybe its not such a crazy idea. I'd hate to see so much wood go to waste, but the base isn't really allowed to sell anything, so its not like they can gain anything from it. After that we had a relaxing three day weekend, with an air show, a party and a cookout all lined up! Until next time, peace and plants people, peace and plants.

Blowin grass onto other grass

Hey Yall,

Today we did a whole lot of blowin' grass clippings around, trying to get the sites prepped for the prairie plantings tomorrow. I also used a chainsaw for the first time!!! (Hippie friends: Don't worry, we just cut up a dead tree.) After that, John took us around some more and showed us what does and doesn't work in terms of planting, removing non-natives, and prescribed burns. They're using a native buffalo grass as turf grass, which is pretty awesome because most lawn grasses are horribly invasive, as we saw today when we were looking at some sites that were infested with exotic turf grasses. We also flagged some african weeping lovegrass for herbicide and probably prevented a pretty big invasion.

Oh yeah, and we heard GUNSHOTS!!! Justin and I were blowing grass and there was a live fire exercise at the rifle range, which is right behind our site. I guess I'm gonna have to get used to that sort of thing...

Third Day

Today we talked to two wetland consultants from a Texas experimental wetland research center. They were really great people and they knew everything there was to know about aquatic vegetation. It was funny though, anytime we asked about anything outside the water, both experts were stumped! I'm talking not even a foot out of the water!

John has put Justin and I in charge of designing the plantings around and in a created pond and the surrounding jurisdictional upstream of it. The consultants gave us a whole bunch of advice on which plants to use and where, and they're gonna get us a list of species. I want to use a little bit of randomization on this one, since we're gonna be planting multiple species. The pond might be too small for that kind of stuff, but the contours around it might work.

One of the consultants planted twelve lily pads out in a backed up stream that had an illegally high pH. Six were planted in cages, six just out in the water. There were two kinds of cages with three of each, a small mesh crab wire cage and a larger mesh cage. They staggered it, one open one cage in a straight line with about 5 ft between them. They said the lilies, Nymphaea odorata, would grow almost across the whole area by the end of the summer.

After that we went and blew some grass clippings around with leafblowers. We're trying to establish native grasses, and for the planting to work, the seeds have to make contact with the soil. When the exotic grass was mowed, some patches were so thick with clippings that you couldn't see the soil, so we were trying to minimize that. Whew it got hot! But it was a cooler day today and its gonna get a lot hotter. Goodnight!

First Three Days

I finally got to posting again after three amazing days at Tinker. I've been touring the base with John and Justin (the other SCA intern), checking out all the projects that the Integrated Environmental Team has going. Most everyone's civilian, and I haven't really interacted with too many Air Force people yet. The environmental team on this base is really impressive. You've got a guy for fisheries, two for wildlife management (mostly taking care of pest species), a GIS expert, a PhD student with three field techs studying Texas Horned Lizards, and John, who oversees the projects and is really into native plantings and restoration. That's just one office, but it covers most of the people involved.

The base has an Urban Greenway, which is a series of natural areas connected by trails. The goal is to have all the reserves connected by native plant species, including prairie, forest, and wetland areas. John's really focused on habitat variability, which is great because a lot of native plantings end up being monocultures. On the first day I got in and met John and Justin at the airport, after which we toured some of the base. On the second day we toured some more and checked out the native tree farm. The farm has sets of two rows of trees planted together and sharing an irrigation line. The trees are staggered, planted in big holes with a rootbag to keep it all together. The rootbag works better than a pot because they keep the roots from wrapping around in the pot.

The other intern, Justin, has an incredible amount of practical knowledge, especially when it comes to game-type wildlife. He's a Bio Major form Michigan and he's memorizing plant names way faster than me (story of my life!). He eventually wants to apply what he's learning here to land that he wants to buy in Michigan. Justin hates snakes, and he saw his first 4-foot wild black ratsnake snake today. He was peein' in the woods and almost peed on it!

We also had a fun experience in the office with another black ratsnake. The Texas Horned Lizard people usually keep the little "Varmints" (as John calls them) in burlap bags. So when I saw a bag that looked really full, I naturally assumed that it was a bag full of Lizards. Ray, the fisheries guy and practical joker, assured me that it was ok for them to all be together in the bag like that. Then he told me to open it, and when I did, I jumped back because it was another black ratsnake! Anyway I got to eat, but I'll catch up with day three soon!

Plane Ride

I'm on the plane to Oklahoma, and I'm looking down on our country and noticing all kinds of cool spatial patterns. I'm pretty sure you can actually see the effects of our wetland and stream protection policies from the air. In the Midwest, these have resulted in everything but a small buffer around the streams to be used for farmland or urban/suburban use. The buffer seems to be always uniform. It usually looks like the federal 100 ft buffer, but once in a while its uniformly bigger. I wonder if that's the result of better local protection laws, or just less usable land or wetlands that were not drained prior to the day we got smart and stopped draining wetlands.

Check it out:

Another pattern I'm noticing is that once in a while, especially while flying to my stopover in Ohio, I'll see a square patch of what looks like forest surrounded by agricultural fields. I have to wonder if those are old field re-grown forests, tree farms, or patches that have lain unfarmed for a long time.

I still have no idea what's waiting for me when this plane touches down. Will I learn all sorts of cool and useful stuff about forest management and ecology? Will I end up just doing a lot of unrelated stuff? Will I ever be able to explain what I did to my friends beyond a vague "Natural resource management on an Air Force base."? Well, the compy's runnin' out of power, so until next time, thanks for readin'.