My guest in this episode is Michael Kauffmann. He’s a life-long educator, ecologist, and author, as well as founder of Backcountry Press. He’s also an expert in conifers – those wonderful trees that include some of the tallest, widest, and oldest living trees on Earth. Think Giant Sequoia, Coast Redwood, and Bristlecone Pine for just a small taste of what conifers have to offer.
Today we discuss the many things that make conifers such an amazing group of plants. Michael walks us through their evolutionary history, what makes them different from other trees, and gives us a special look at the amazing diversity of conifers in his area – the Klamath region of far northern California. This deep dive reveals many interesting ecological processes that likely can be generalized to other regions and other plants. It’s truly fascinating.
Michael Kauffmann (left), Foxtail Pine (right). Photos courtesy Michael Kauffmann.
Michael also discusses how he turned his love of conifers into two amazing projects. With the creation of his first book, Conifer Country, Michael established Backcountry Press. It has since grown to produce several wonderful natural history books, and he gives us a preview of some new ones due out soon. And the second project is his establishment of the 360 mile Bigfoot Trail. It’s a playful name for a truly serious trail if you are in to backpacking or botanizing, and it boasts 32 conifer species.
You can find Michael at MichaelKauffmann.net, on Instagram, or on iNaturalist.
So without additional delay, please enjoy my discussion with Michael Kauffmann.
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Links To Topics Discussed
People, Organizations, Things
The Miracle Mile – all of the species Michael documented in the famed 1 square mile of the Klamath.
California Desert Plants – coming in May 2022 from Backcountry Press
Conifer Country, by Michael Kauffmann
Conifers of California by Ronald Lanner
Conifers of the Pacific Slope, by Michael Kauffmann
The Klamath Knot by David Rains Wallace
The Klamath Mountains: A Natural History Tour – coming October 2022 from Backcountry Press
Field Guide to Manzanitas, by Michael Kauffmann, Tom Parker, and Michael Vasey
Northwest Trees by Stephen Arno
Note: some links are affiliate links, which pay a small commission to me if you proceed to order.
Opening – Fearless First by Kevin MacLoed
Closing – Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLoed
Both can be obtained from https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/
Transcripts are automatically created, and are about 95% accurate. Apologies for any errors.
[00:00:00] Michael Hawk: Michael, thank you for joining me today.
[00:00:02] Michael Kauffmann: Hey, thanks for having me excited to be here.
[00:00:04] Michael Hawk: Yeah, I’m really excited to have you here. When I learned about your work, I honestly got very inspired by what you’ve been able to accomplish. I see a lot of parallels in what you’re doing and what I would like to do. So I’m hoping that not only can my listeners learn from you today but hopefully I can learn from you as well.
[00:00:22] Michael Kauffmann: Thank you. That’s nice of you to say top level goal. I think for both of us is connecting people to the natural world and that’s why we’re here to do.
[00:00:30] Michael Hawk: Absolutely. And in a little bit of serendipity, I say, I guess this was in December. I went out on a nature walk with a friend of mine and he was telling me about this field guide to Manzanita’s and I was like really such a thing exists. And, I thought I was on top of the field guide world.
[00:00:48] I have a big collection somehow I had missed that field guide and sure enough, it was one authored by you. And and then I found that you also had a field guide to conifers in the Pacific slope. And at that exact same time, the serendipitous part is our mutual acquaintance Grif Griffith connected us.
[00:01:08] And that was all within a matter of three days. uh,
[00:01:11] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah, ,
[00:01:11] I’ve always been a fan of field guides. Like I, I feel like it’s one of these things. I was always a collector, I used to collect baseball cards, but I also collected birds and I collected the insects. And then I started to collect the trees in the yard. When I say that, I mean, starting to figure out what they were using, those old golden guides.
[00:01:28] It’s been real, a real exciting path for me to pursue the idea of new field guides. And so Yeah. thanks for picking those up and checking them out.
[00:01:37] Michael Hawk: I’m jumping ahead a little bit here in, in what I was planning to talk about. What I like about them is you show exactly where to go look for some of the species in particular. And I’m looking forward to putting that to good use here over the next couple of years.
[00:01:50] It’s a unique aspect of the guides that you’ve put together.
[00:01:54] Why don’t we back up several steps then? And can you tell me just a little bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in nature?
[00:02:03] Michael Kauffmann: Sure. Yeah. I grew up in Virginia and basically, you know, my parents, enjoyed nature, but they weren’t passionate about taking this out into nature, but I lived in a nice place along the James river, where I was able to get into the national park there near Jamestown and see some wild places got in them.
[00:02:25] But the big thing for me was when I hit high school, I had the science teacher, Charles Duke. Amazing man, who developed field courses for high school kids. And , my senior year, I had a two period class and we would put on our hip waders, we’d Wade through beaver dams, and we’d identify trees with leaves.
[00:02:43] And then later in the year, we had to identify the deciduous trees without leaves in the swamps. And that, as soon as I was halfway through that class, I knew I was going to get a biology degree. So I went to Virginia tech, got a biology degree for quick years, thankfully. And when I was a senior, I found this publication hanging on the wall called environmental opportunities.
[00:03:05] And there were jobs in California teaching environmental education to kids. And I applied and I got a job and I moved to county and I lived in near a little town called Springville, and it was at the Southern end of Sequoia national park. So I got to hang out with giant sequoias and foxtail Pines on the weekend.
[00:03:22] And it was just, that was my life pursuit. I was really fortunate to find it so quickly. I think, and I pursued more environmental education. I taught for the Los Angeles county office of education down in a little town called Wrightwood in St. Gabriel mountains. And I was reluctant to move to Southern California, but I guess I was in central Southern until Larry county.
[00:03:44] But then when I moved to real Southern California, I thought, oh gosh, I’m going to be close to LA. There’s not going to be any nature. And it couldn’t have been further from the truth. The San Gabriel mountains, one of the wildest mountain ranges in the state because they’re so steep.
[00:03:57] I think John Muir called them the steepest mountains. He ever hiked in right along the San Andres. But what happened for me was again, like when I was in Larry county, hanging out with giant sequoias and foxtail Pines, when I was in the transverse ranges there, the St Gabriel’s, but also on the edge of the Mojave and the snore and in the great basin of California and even Arizona and Nevada, I would get out to those places on the weekends, I would climb mountains and at the top of these mountains would be conifers.
[00:04:26] So that for me, started to peak my interest in conifers. Why were they there? Why were they isolated on these mountaintops? You know, It, wasn’t always the case. There’s some lower elevation pinions, and junipers out in the desert, but to find these strange isolated stands on mountain tops, like for instance, on Baden Powell in the San Gabriel mountains, you can see limber pine and also these Relic populations of Sierra Juniper.
[00:04:54] So these sort of biogeographical. Anomalies started to puzzle me. And I started to seek out we’ll wear other things like this, where other rare trees or animals and even other plants and birds. So that’s been my path, and then documenting that stuff. And it used to be just in a journal. I, shelves and shelves of my old paper journals.
[00:05:16] And those journals slowly turned into little websites that I experimented with in the early two thousands. They used to have a website called the wilderness birder, where I had this rule where you had to spend a week in the wilderness before a bird list could be legitimate. So anyway, it’s just silly stuff like that.
[00:05:34] And then that all turned into this passion of creating books.
[00:05:37] Michael Hawk: Yeah. That’s so many kind of evocative visions, as you were talking about that, thinking about the sequoias and then your experience in the San Gabriels. And and I can see so many hooks for you. But was there a moment where you were like , this is a group I want to delve deeply into.
[00:05:55] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah, it was the foxtail Pines, you know, had been to the, see the giant sequoias. And I understood that , it was, it’s a rare species, California endemic, but I went for my first high elevation backpacking trip and square national park. We went to Eagle lake, which is out of the mineral king. We came to this lake and there were these enormous trees with this beautiful red. And if you’ve ever seen the needles on a Fox tail, the way they’re just wrapped really tightly in a circle, the bottlebrush sort of idea, foxtail, however you wanna describe it. I looked it up and I was like, wow, this is another California endemic right next to these giant sequoias. And that was really the big step for me.
[00:06:38] Michael Hawk: And those, you said they’re high elevation
[00:06:41] Michael Kauffmann: They’re only in, Yeah.
[00:06:42] they’re only in the Southern Sierra, Nevada. I think they get almost as far north, as Bishop in the Southern Sierra, Nevada. And then there there’s also stands in the Klamath mountains. So there are these two disjunct subspecies of Pinus Balfour, Ariana, which is the foxtail.
[00:06:58] Michael Hawk: Very cool. And maybe talking a little bit about conifers in general, making that jump. What makes a conifer a a conifer? I mean, they’re, very different from other tree species.
[00:07:08] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah, they are. And I think that’s the other intriguing piece. They’re like this ancient lineage, right? So I’ll take you on a quick history of plant life. And it was only a mere 425 million years ago, or so that plants became compatible with land, right? So this most plants were in the water. These plants crept on the land.
[00:07:27] They were nonvascular, meaning the small things like mosses then plants developed this vascular tissue and allowed them to grow up. the next leap was ferns and horsetails club mosses, things like that. And this vascular tissue, again, created this ability for them to grow upwards, not necessarily need to be wet all the time. Moss, but also they still were restrictive because they only reproduce with spores. And then about 360 380 million years ago, based on the fossil record, the first gymnosperms emerged, and this is a large group and we can go into some detail about that in a minute if we want, but this is a large group that eventually includes the conifers, but they have seeds.
[00:08:13] And this was a big deal to have a seed because seeds promoted this ability for the plant to remain dormant when conditions weren’t ideal. So if it wasn’t wet, they seed could sit for a few months or whatever. And then the rains came, the seed can germinate. So that really allowed plants to begin their expansion across the landscape.
[00:08:33] And gymnosperms were followed by the angiosperms. About 140 million years ago, that number shifting a little bit, but these were the flowering plants, but both the gymnosperms and angiosperms, these are the seed plants of the world, but they have pretty different approaches to survival. But again, this was this relationship with dormancy and seed gymnosperms have seeds that form on a structure.
[00:08:57] Most typically we know as a cone and then they NG a sperm seeds are enclosed in something, you know, you can picture an apple, and apple holds that seed inside a wild story. But the real heyday of the conifers was during the Jurassic and or Mesozoic I should say. And that was when there were about 20,000 species of conifers.
[00:09:16] And I think what’s amazing about this is, you think about how many species.
[00:09:20] there used to be now, you can think of it as a group in decline because there’s only a thousand species of gymnosperms that are left on her. But what’s amazing about those thousand species of gymnosperms about 620 or 30, I guess it’s 630 of those are conifers. still cover about 30% of the forest and land on earth. So, even though there’s hardly any, relative to what they’re used to be, they still do quite well in the right systems. And those are generally systems north of the 45th parallel higher on mountain tops in the subtropics or temperate regions.
[00:09:57] And then you think about those boreal forest further north, and that’s where they really, across north America and Asia, that’s where they really cover this vast amount of the landscape.
[00:10:06] Michael Hawk: Are angiosperms then direct descendants of gymnosperms.
[00:10:10] Michael Kauffmann: That’s the idea, but there’s still, to my knowledge, there’s been no definitive connection of which. And or how those angiosperms are rose from the gymnosperms. most likely it’s going to come from some connection then in the group of Natalies, which are things like the offenders of the California desert or the well witchy of South Africa, they think there’s probably a connection in there, but has not been specifically pinpointed in the fossil record yet.
[00:10:37] Michael Hawk: Yeah. It really interesting. So much to discover still. So you talked about how gymnosperms developed the ability to propagate by seed. Can you walk me through that process? The pollination process, or maybe a year in the life of a reproducing, conifer.
[00:10:55] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah. This is the big difference between the angiosperms and the gymnosperms gymnosperms are almost exclusively wind pollinated, so they rely on breezes. The pollen blows typically from. The male pollen cone to the female seed code and pollinates that, and this is can be restrictive if you think about certain conifers on a mountain top.
[00:11:16] So like those limber pine I talked about in Southern California, their genetics is becoming more and more isolated because the pollen is basically stuck on the mountaintop. So the big shift was with the angiosperms and their ability to coerce, animals into that pollination process, mostly insects, but of course, other maybe hummingbirds or bats do things for certain angiosperms.
[00:11:40] So that diversification of the NGS from happened because of that relationship. It also happened when the asteroid hit 65 million years ago, mass extinction. And that was that’s what led to the major decline of the gymnast. Where just, basically anything under the soil surface survived and then what re-emerged were not necessarily the reptiles, but the mammals and the mammals began to have a well, and also the, you think about seed dispersal, right?
[00:12:10] So the mammals helped with the NGS berms in the seed dispersal. Now, obviously there are conifers that rely on animals for seed dispersal, but so it’s a complex interactions here, but the bottom line is that flowering plants relationship with pollinators really launched the diversification.
[00:12:27] Yeah. Today there’s 350,000 described flowering plants. It’s probably 500 or 600,000 species. Some of them have yet to be described. And then, like I said, there’s only a thousand species of the gymnosperms and 630 conifers in the world. So a major biogeographical shift in what was on earth because of both the asteroid.
[00:12:51] And then, like I said, that relationship with animal pollinators in the flowering plants.
[00:12:55] Michael Hawk: I can envision. The wind blowing, looking at a conifer and just seeing a cloud of pollen emanating from a conifer. And and just, the it’s mind boggling thinking about how much pollen is actually produced, what’s producing the pollen on a typical conifer. And I also recognize that there’s rarely one answer for, especially for a very diverse group of of organisms like conifers.
[00:13:19] So maybe there’s a few different scenarios that you want.
[00:13:22] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah, sure. It depends on environmental conditions to begin with, right? So if the tree’s under stress, it might produce more pollen and seed cones and the anticipation of a slow decline, or maybe there’s a big water year, but basically the bottom line is early in spring, these pollen and start to develop.
[00:13:42] So they’re developing now, just like we see. And I’m speaking now about more Western north America and the typical regimes here. The bottom line is these things start to develop an immersion spring and the wind picks up and the seeds start to develop. Typically, depending on the conifer, it could take from six months to two years, once that pollination process happens.
[00:14:05] But then those as those seeds develop in the cones after pollination, they’re going to fall at an optimal time, depending on the environment that conifers. And so, you know, in Southern California, that optimal time might be October, November, right before typically the first rains come. And that could vary depending on elevation and latitude.
[00:14:27] Michael Hawk: And yeah, we’ll talk a little bit more about some of the geographic differences hopefully later when I was a kid, I inaccurately equated conifers with evergreens. And later I learned that evergreens don’t have to be conifers. And then later I learned that conifers are not just Pines, there’s other groups like spruces and Cyprus and and so forth.
[00:14:47] When you look at north America, let’s focus on north America a little bit. What groups might you find taxonomically say if you’re in the Northeastern us versus in the Rocky mountains versus in Calif.
[00:14:57] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah. So yeah, this is, there’s a lot to unpack here, but the bottom line is there are some deciduous conifers, And, like you said, there are evergreen angiosperms. But it’s a bit, if we just want to unpack that for a second, that is a, basically a survival strategy, right? So generally if a tree or a shrub or whatever is producing evergreen leaves or needles, It’s in it for the long-term right.
[00:15:23] Pacific silver for a long in the cascades, Western north America is purported to have the longest surviving needles of any Connor for up to 70 years of any plant. Really? I think 70 years, they keep these things. So they’re invested, right? They’re putting their energy in there may be not in a place that’s going to see high level of disturbance so that, so let’s sit down and let’s flash down to Creekside and alders, the angiosperms that might grow along rivers and creeks across the west.
[00:15:53] For instance, they do see disturbance, right? They might see flooding, they might see landslides. And because of that, they might invest less in their beliefs. There’s more to the story, but that’s just a general way to think about it. If we want to go from there and just think about the evergreen conifers are so to speak, or the conifers in general of north America, there’s basically three families and then there’s seven families worldwide, but in north America, there’s three.
[00:16:21] So we’re looking at Pinaceae, which are the Pines and the spruces and the firs we’re looking at Cupressaceae, which includes redwoods. Junipers what we call Cedars, the new world Cedars, and then Taxaceae which is the Yew. And there’s only a few use species. There’s also, Terranea in California, which is in Taxaceae.
[00:16:40] So within those groups, if we’re looking at identification and understanding the pinaceae the Pines in this first and the spruce is they typically have, what we refer to as a typical needle. Long. No scales on the needle. So think about a pine tree or your yield tree, the in the house at Christmas time, the, for that, that you might get, they have one long needle Cupressaceae, or are different.
[00:17:05] They have scale like needles. Typically they have spherical cones. Juniper is a good example. That’s One of the few Cupressaceae that go around the world, most Cupressaceae are interesting like redwoods and giant sequoias. They’re dominant where they live, but they’re dominant and very small areas junipers are the exception to that because they have this Berry cone that’s distributed by birds.
[00:17:27] So the Juniper has, is there’s nice, typical scale, like needles of Cupressaceae, and you can find them across north America across Europe and Africa and Asia, and then Taxaceae or unusual. They, their needles look up similar to both Pinaceae and Cupressaceae in certain instances, but they have a fleshy cone called an aril, and it’s really like an undeveloped toe they did when they first developed, you can see the scales that you might expect on a, another conifer, but then they never really mature into that hard Woody structure we’re most familiar with.
[00:18:03] So those are the three big groups that we would encounter in north America.
[00:18:07] Michael Hawk: Our. Most of those groups observable across most of north America, I know that the Klamath region is a hotspot and we’re going to get to that here in a moment. But I’m curious, having not explored much in say the upper Midwest or the Southeast what one might see in those areas.
[00:18:23] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah, Taxaceae is, would be the hard one depending on where you are. There’s a, on the panhandle of Florida, actually, not the panhandle near the near Alabama and Florida. I forget the name of the river. There’s two endemic. Taxaceae. So there’s a terrain and a yew that live only there. So that’s a wild spot.
[00:18:44] I’ve never been there. I’d love to visit, but then you move up into Northeast and you began to see some yew, there are uncommon, but you can find the Canada Yew there. And then Western north America specifically on the Pacific slope and California. You can find the Pacific Yew and then California has an endemic terrain.
[00:19:01] California terrain they call it. So those are, that would be the hard group to find. But the other two groups, Cupressaceae And Pinaceae are pretty omnipresent.
[00:19:08] Michael Hawk: And then zeroing in. Your region in particular. I’ve heard about this area. I’ve read about it on your blog the miracle mile. Can you tell me what that is and why it is.
[00:19:21] Michael Kauffmann: Sure. . This is really where my conifer fascination exploded. I mentioned I lived in the San Gabriel mountains and I lived there until I was, oh, I have 29, I think, and decided I needed to get my teaching credential. So I moved to Humboldt. Actually announced Cal poly Humboldt.
[00:19:37] But the bottom line was I got up here, started to explore the mountains and I thought I knew my conifers. I thought I knew how to identify stuff. And I started to wander up here and I was it’s like I was in a new, on a new planet.
[00:19:50] It was really fascinatingly confusing. So I began to really break it down and start to understand this diversity and the diversity of Northwest California here in the Klamath mountains is one of the most diverse temporal coniferous forests on earth. And it’s rivaled by potentially a few places in China.
[00:20:09] Mount Rainier , has challenged us in a species diversity per unit area, but the miracle mile is an exception and that there are 18 species of conifers in one square mile. And the list is out there. It’s on my blog. it was 17 until about eight years ago. And we discovered the Western Juniper SOCCENT talus on an isolated slope.
[00:20:34] And I, when I say discovered these trees four or 500 years old, so they’ve been there for a long time. It’s just a spot that nobody had ever looked within. This sort of, it’s an a, it’s an arbitrary square mile. But the bottom line was John Sawyer and Dale Thornburg who were in the forestry and biology departments at Humboldt state back in the sixties were exploring around there.
[00:20:55] Actually, they were keyed into this area by Ledyard Stebbins, a famous botanist out of Berkeley. But he said, Hey, look, we’ve heard that there are stands of Engelmann spruce and the Klamath mountains. Can you go verify? So they went into this spot called Blake’s fork on a Russian Creek and they found.
[00:21:14] The England spruce, which , they were the first ones to click herbarium specimens for this in California. So this is.
[00:21:19] more of a cascade Rocky mountain species sneaks into California and The Klamath, and they continue to walk around and they were just blown away. They were finding foxtail Pines.
[00:21:28] They were the first ones to discover subalpine for a soon after that one. And this all fell within this area in the Russian wilderness around Russian peak. And so they named it the miracle mile. And the bottom line with this spot is it’s at this crossroad. So the Klamath mountains are a crossroads. If we take a step back and Klamath mountains are about the size of Virginia.
[00:21:47] They are basically, south of Mount Shasta, a little bit to just north of the Oregon border between the coast and Mount Shasta. So it’s this kind of this area of, I think it’s about 22,000 square miles or so, so it’s big, but it’s also this area where the Sierra Nevada meets the cascades meets, meets the coast range meets the great basin meets the central valley.
[00:22:11] So you get the picture. You’ve got these it’s the Northern end of the California floristic province, the Southern end of the Pacific Northwest. So it’s this area that claimed with mountains in general or crossroads, but the miracle mile sort of typifies that crossroads. Where the wet species or the species that prefer more mesic sites need the species that prefer more Xeric sites.
[00:22:31] Like the junipers high elevation meets lower elevation because of the steep relief, rock types, intermix granites, and serpentines. And it’s just a, it’s a Wonderland for not just conifers for almost all plans. I think there’s 450 450 species that have been documented in or near the miracle mile of vascular plans.
[00:22:53] So fascinating stuff.
[00:22:55] Michael Hawk: The thing I love about it is within this small area, you can see so many things. Ecological processes at work and the outcomes. You hit so many right there from climate to elevation, to soil types competition, you can see it all right there and walk away with a hands-on view of these things that maybe you’ve only heard about before in textbooks.
[00:23:19] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah.
[00:23:19] Michael Hawk: So 18 species in that area, and then the Klamath in general, how many species.
[00:23:25] Michael Kauffmann: Depending on your boundaries, about 30, I would say 32, but just outside of that 38. I’m talking just outside, you can add a couple of cypresses and a couple of other interesting junipers that? So yeah. And depending on whether, how you consider certain species, it’s kind of reserved a little bit of a taxonomic.
[00:23:44] I wouldn’t say mass, but problem that’s still being worked out.
[00:23:48] Michael Hawk: Aren’t they all.
[00:23:49] Michael Kauffmann: I guess you’re right. I guess you’re
[00:23:51] Michael Hawk: the more we learn, the more we realize taxonomy, doesn’t always quite fit the boundaries that we wish.
[00:23:56] Michael Kauffmann: you’re exactly right.
[00:23:57] Michael Hawk: One thing that I like to try to do with the podcast is help people, hikers, naturalists that are out, looking at things, learn more about what they’re seeing, and also maybe give them some tools to or maybe some inspiration to go look a little bit more deeply into certain areas.
[00:24:14] So I, how does one begin to observe and identify and understand conifers in the.
[00:24:21] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s confusing. I have friends, professors at Humboldt state that are still in there. Not necessarily a conifer specialists by any means, people that are keen observers still shoot me emails. All right. Help me out with this thing right here. This is confusing.
[00:24:36] So when I began to understand that’s why I started to put together my first book called conifer country and Conifer Country explorers, the conifers of the Klamath mountains, it gives you 27 hikes. To get in to see these conifers. And each of those hikes has a list of the conifers that you can expect to see so that, in some ways you need to start with something like that.
[00:24:56] So maybe you grab a list from Cal flora or I naturalist, you do a search of a certain area and then you’ve got your list before you go. I think that’s a good starting point, right? It clean, it keeps it clean. Now there could be things that maybe weren’t documented on both of those platforms, but those platforms, the databases are getting better and better every minute based on, people’s community science and passion for those sort of projects.
[00:25:20] But then, when you are the. Make good observations. Maybe make a field sketch, take photos grab the needles. Are they spiky? Are they not? How are their cones? What do they look like? Are they sitting upright? Which is how they sit in firs or are they small and spherical and maybe it’s within Cupressaceae, right?
[00:25:38] So that they have scale like needles. So it just takes repeated practice observations. I obviously encourage putting that stuff up on. I naturalist I follow every Conor for observation within the.
[00:25:51] California floristic province on I naturalist. So I can’t say that I’m on there identifying stuff all the time, but I like to look and see what people are seeing and I will help correct those identifications.
[00:26:03] as with anything it’s practice finding the right resources and challenging yourself to ask new question.
[00:26:09] Michael Hawk: I remember with Pines, another factor can be the number that the bundling, the needle count, how many needles are growing together.
[00:26:17] Michael Kauffmann: exactly. Yup.
[00:26:18] Michael Hawk: and and now if I were to maybe go into a more difficult taxa, the Cyprus what would you recommend for people? Who’s I understand that’s one of the most dynamic tax at the moment in terms of potentially splitting, speeding.
[00:26:31] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah. Yeah. The bottom line with, Cupressaceae, is your location in a lot of ways, like I said, are. Dominant and over small areas, like I like take Redwood or giant Sequoia or the cypresses of Southern California. If those cypresses from Southern California lake, say the queer Maka Cyprus was taken into a lab and shown to me next to the Piute Cypress, I would probably have a difficult time telling the two apart.
[00:26:57] But if I saw an observation on a naturalist and I saw that you were in the Southern Sierra, Nevada, and you got a Cypress, then I’m going to know that it’s a Piute Cyprus. Now I’ve got friends like Joey San tour, who swears he can smell the difference between these cybers is I’m not there yet with my ability to smell.
[00:27:14] But anyway yeah, I would say if you’re, if you are making these observations, definitely grab needles, get a couple of angles, get the top and the bottom of the needle. Take a picture of the bark. And if there is if there is a cone, definitely shoot the cone. , For I naturalist or California, you’re gonna get.
[00:27:29] Three or four pictures up per conifer.
[00:27:31] Michael Hawk: read my mind, I was going to ask if you’re on nine natural list, helping people are there projects, people can submit their observations to, I know sometimes, like for example, I’m into plant galls and there are some plant gall projects. And when you submit your observation to that project, more eyes are on it.
[00:27:47] More experts are looking at it. Are there similar such projects that people could utilize?
[00:27:51] Michael Kauffmann: I, yeah, I have projects there. They’re definitely a little bit more obscure. I have just because of the obscurity of the Klamath mountains, I have a Klamath mountain geomorphic province that will grab your observation within a polygon. I will see that I will typically help to identify it if I can. , you can even follow genera or families. And that’s, like I said, that’s what I do for the California floristic province. I, follow. Connor for observation within that. I think, it’s the best social media out there, in my opinion. It’s, you’re following plants, you’re following people, making observations and you’re contributing to our understanding of where these things are.
[00:28:29] Michael Hawk: And I, I don’t think my audience is big enough to. Barry you with requests, but maybe I’ll go out on the limb and ask, is it, if someone is say outside of California would you be able to lend a hand if they’re really challenged by an identification?
[00:28:45] Michael Kauffmann: Oh, sure. I get emails all the time like that. I think it’s fun. So It’s like a treasure hunt, right? Where were you? Show me some pictures.
[00:28:53] Michael Hawk: So yeah. W what’s your handle on that?
[00:28:55] Michael Kauffmann: I think it’s just Michael Kaufman
[00:28:57] Michael Hawk: I suppose you could, somebody could tag you in the observation to.
[00:29:01] Michael Kauffmann: Definitely. Yeah.
[00:29:03] Michael Hawk: So I really love to find these ecological relationships. I think the story of how things all interrelate and connect it’s always so eye-opening and every discovery or self discovery is a novel discovery that just keeps me going.
[00:29:20] And I alluded to this a moment ago, I’ve really gotten into plant galls, especially the Oak galls. So the snippet wasps and and leaf miners and things like that. And I’m wondering are there similar such sort of obligate relationships between insects or other organisms and conifers that we should be looking for?
[00:29:40] They own, we do discover like, oh, it’s a, it’s that brewer spruce I’ve always been looking for. Then what’s the next step? What should we look for next in ecological niche?
[00:29:48] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah, that’s a big question. as we know, everything is interconnected, right? So I think one, one way to look at it is at the landscape scale. So if we see if we begin to see the patterns and I love to talk about brewer’s spruce, let’s talk about brewer’s spruce, is a Klamath mountain endemic.
[00:30:06] It only grows here used to have a much wider range across Western north America. There’s pollen records from Nevada and Wyoming when it was much wetter as climate shifted. And through the pleistocene. And then the holocene became more and more isolated, started to hug the coast and in the climates that mimicked those that were, much more ancient.
[00:30:28] And that’s the claim with mountains right now, right? So that’s where the brewer spruce are. And when, as you explore the brewers spruce, there’s this dichotomy of distribution across range. So if you look, if you think about that, plant’s relationship to the landscape in the Western part of the Klamath mountains, where it’s wetter, they’re going to be in a more dense forest like in the Siskiyou mountains, you can find them in the understory under Douglas fir or white fir as you move more to the east, they begin to hug the north facing slope. Places that are, again, a little bit wetter than elsewhere, often in areas that are fire have been fire free for a long time. So they might be on Rocky outcrops, places that fire can’t reach them. So this is their sort of Relic residual habitat. Once you start to see those patterns of the species, then you can start to think about how do other ecological factors affect them?
[00:31:22] Like you’re talking about, is there a certain, spruce, budworm say that’s causing some sort of gall on a brewer spruce and the answer is yes, there are that, that does occur. see, you start to see well, is this an underdeveloped cone or is this actually a gall? There’s little things like that you can watch for.
[00:31:39] And then now in the age of Accelerated climate change. What are the effects of a hundred years of fire suppression based? And then now the verification or the ratification of the landscape so rapidly in the last 20 years, 50 years, effects of that is that having on the species? So yeah, all of these things are interacting.
[00:32:00] There’s also like a mistletoe, right? That could grow on the brewer spruce. And that mistletoe is going to be a little bit different than the mistletoe that grows on the Douglas fir and the Douglas fir is going to have insect pathogens that might be a little bit different than the insight pathogens that grow on the brewer spruce.
[00:32:16] Yeah, it’s a complicated, there’s many complicated relationships to look for. And I’m sure there’s things that have not been a hundred percent hashed out and understood about these about the brewers Bruce in particular. Mistletoes in general, we’re in a real mistletoe hotspot here in Northwest California.
[00:32:34] So what’s all these relationships with all the different Pines and et cetera. So it’s fascinating. That’s so cool that you’re looking at these gall wasps and leaf cutters because, we got to keep looking closer.
[00:32:47] Michael Hawk: Yeah, it seems like there’s so many areas that are just right for discovery. And I’m going to guess some of these remnant populations that are hard to get to, and that require this extra level of inspection to make these discoveries are probably, they probably fall into that same boat, maybe more so there’s probably more discovery waiting to be made in some of these cases.
[00:33:09] And, you started to hit on something I meant to ask about back to , the diversity of conifers in your area. you mentioned a couple of really interesting things, how, I forget the species that had needles that are. Productive for 70 years. And you mentioned a species that’s 500 years old and just hadn’t been noticed, or, nobody had looked in that area.
[00:33:30] And then now you just talked about climate change and fire regimes. So in terms of disturbance, is there anything unique about the miracle mile and maybe the Klamath region in general and the rates of disturbance, types of disturbance that allow for this diversity to occur?
[00:33:47] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah. That’s part of the magic of the Klamath. If we go back in time, the area was never heavily glacier. And that had to do with its proximity to the coast. There were glaciers, right? There’s still one glacier left in the Klamath. It’ll probably be here for another couple of years based on the research that’s happening.
[00:34:03] It’s not going to be around much longer, but the glaciers were never huge. Now that’s th there were some big ones, right? Many miles long, and the Trinity Alps in particular, but glaciers were typically small north facing circs. . And then when you think about glaciers, say in the Appalachian mountains, these things could have been hundreds of miles long, right?
[00:34:22] So they were pushing species way far south, south end to North Carolina, Georgia. What we would is now North Carolina and Georgia, right? So they’re moving that vast sheets of ice pushing these species south. In the Klamath mountains, the big sheets of ice were pushed south, but they weren’t pushed into the Klamath mountains.
[00:34:43] So the Klamath has always been, what’s referred to as a refuge for a lot of species. So these species were sorted through the pleistocene repeatedly pushed south from their limits in the north south end of the Klamath, those glaciers retreated, the species were able to move back out. And because of that people like to call the Klamath mountains and museum, they’ve been able, due to this geologic complexity, the climate regime here, species have been able to both hide out, so to speak during these major cycles in the climate. But also speciate, there’s a huge number of endemic species and that’s due to climate. That’s also due to geology. Pretty fascinating to think about this deep time selection of species and, the numbers are something like.
[00:35:28] And this number is probably bigger, will be bigger, but about 3,500 tax out of plants. And that’s rivaled only by the Southern Appalachians. And what Do they have in common while they were both, like I was mentioning Monadnock are these islands in the ice during the place to seam, but the Southern Appalachians in the climate mountains.
[00:35:47] So very similar in a lot of respects, we even have similar tax, talk about the conifers, their spruces, and there’s firs that are Chamaecyparis , which is the port Orford Cedar here. There’s the Eastern version of Chamaecyparis as well. So these are all sort of these two areas that had a lot of the same climatic experiences.
[00:36:07] And because of that have this similar flora in floral debris.
[00:36:11] Michael Hawk: This is maybe some pontification, but when I hear about the, kind of the refugee uh, that the Klamath provided, and now I think about this, the, what climate change and fire regime change is doing, does it. That region perhaps more sensitive or more at risk to the changes that are.
[00:36:29] Michael Kauffmann: Oh, definitely. There we’ve had some huge fires, obviously is a lot of California or the west has and say, even starting in 2012, even 20 14, 20 14, there was a fire that everyone predicted was going to creep into the miracle mile and possibly destroy that diversity. Now, thankfully it didn’t, I think it had a lot to do with, like I was saying, spatially restricted microsites.
[00:36:52] There’s a lot of granite that interferes, there’s not fuel loading under that granite necessarily, so that keeps can keep fire. But yeah, it’s a little terrifying to think about, to be honest with you. If we think about what happened to the giant sequoias over the last two years, we’ve lost one quarter or so, or maybe it’s a little less 20% of all the giant sequoias on earth have disappeared in the last two years because of high intensity fires.
[00:37:16] That’s the, that’s going to happen up here. There’s going to be even bigger fires. The fuel loading in the understory of some of the forests in the Klamath mountains is off the hook because fires have been eliminated over the past a hundred, 150 years. On a positive note, there’s a lot of good work happening.
[00:37:34] There’s burning happening right now, up here, especially around homes and small towns across the Klamath. So people are making their communities more fire resilient. We’re working. To do more of that and maybe high elevation Meadows or forest systems in the higher elevations. So the idea is hopefully that the community members continue to come together and work to repair all this damage that we’ve done by eliminating fire.
[00:38:05] To hopefully preserve these rare conifers. Now there’s other instances where I feel like the fire probably won’t be as big an issue. Like I mentioned with the miracle mile. Hopefully there are restricted micro-sites where plants continue to persist.
[00:38:20] Like I mentioned, the Pacific silver further Southern range extension is in the Klamath mountains. That’s the one with the 70 year old needles. They’ve had some fires moved through. Those stands in the past. It was always believed that these trees were here because of. Stands had remained fire free, but fires had moved through, there was some damage, but there wasn’t huge damage necessarily.
[00:38:39] I’ve done actually surveys on those stands. And th so that there’s positives. But it also is. It’s fearful to me how quickly we’re drying out. We started this winter with a bang and it hasn’t really rained in two months. So these things are all gonna compound themselves. And hopefully there’s some resiliency because of the nature of the claim with mountain.
[00:38:59] Michael Hawk: . And. The story of the giant sequoias, , they require fire you as part of their strategy for seed dispersal. And now hearing that 20% were lost because of too much fire. Just it’s. If that’s not a warning call, I don’t know what is
[00:39:14] Michael Kauffmann: yeah, And thankfully it sounds like people in the Southern Sierra working on this, we, need to get people in. We need to cut down these hundred year old, firs that are reaching up into the canopy and acting as a ladder to get the fire up into the 200 foot canopy of a giant Sequoia. People are going to have to fix this problem.
[00:39:31] We’re going to have to do it quick. And I, and it sounds like people are working on that problem down there.
[00:39:35] Michael Hawk: yeah, we created it and we’re going to have to fix it.
[00:39:37] Michael Kauffmann: I think we are.
[00:39:38] Michael Hawk: and that’s actually maybe a good segue is what we alluded to at the very beginning, your work to. Connect people to nature, connect people to Klamath and how this love of conifers and the diversity, how you’ve turned it into something even bigger.
[00:39:53] So I don’t know where you’d like to start. I, two things really jumped out at me. One was back country, press, and the other was the big foot trail. What would you like to cover first?
[00:40:02] Michael Kauffmann: How about well, do it in chronologically. So when I started to write conifer for country, which is about 2004, I had never written a book before. I’d never had any experience publishing. And I reached out to publishers and they were in there were people interested in it, but it became one of these things where I had to sign the rights to my pictures and all of my writing away.
[00:40:25] So long story short timing was right. And we decided to start our own publishing business called back country press in conifer country was the first?
[00:40:34] book that we did with back country presser that book took me nine years. It actually turned into my master’s thesis at Humboldt state, Cal poly.
[00:40:43] And. so it was great. It was peer reviewed. It was there was a master’s degree, right? So we published it. I had one of the professors at HSE, tell me it was the first master’s thesis he ever purchased, which was fun. But it’s still used as a textbook there for dendrology, which is very exciting, but that book helped us grow.
[00:41:02] It’s, it’s pretty popular around here, people like it. And that allowed me to write conifers of the Pacific slope. So conifer country focused on the Klamath mountains kind of as the Pacific slope is all the conifers of California, Oregon, and watch. So I like to say Connor for country is 5% of the world’s conifers conifers of the Pacific slope is 10% of the world’s conferences.
[00:41:21] So it’s about 30 conifers treated for 60 controverts Pacific slopes, more of a field guide. But what was interesting with Pacific slope is every time I was learning or meeting a new conifer for the book, there was a Manzanita underneath. So that led me to my fascination with Manzanita is a friend of mine.
[00:41:38] Jeff Bisbee had been meticulously photographing all the manzanitas, which are basically in California. So we kinda got together and said, all right, let’s do this book. And I got Tom Parker and Mike VC involved who are the world manzanita experts. So that was our next book. And then it’s just slowly burgeoned.
[00:41:57] We’ve published books for other people. I’ve got a natural history of the Klamath mountains, which I’ve been working on for five years. That’s going to be coming out in September of this year, 34 authors. We treat everything and fibia and diversity is often hookup here. Snail diversity is off the hook. So this is just, it was my personal, and in this book naturally I see the Klamath mountains.
[00:42:20] I did co-edited with my friend, Justin Garwood. But , we just wanted to unearth as many of the puzzles and as much of the diversity and tell that story put a temporal timestamp on it for this period right now. Because things are changing so fast, but also because it’s just a fascinatingly endless exploration of natural history and the beauty of the Klamath mountain region.
[00:42:42] So anyway, back country press has just been this little, small little side hustle, so to speak, to, to push nature on people, right? To get the word out. We’ve also started to do some online classes during the pandemic, which has been a lot of fun mushroom classes. We’ve done a natural history series on the Klamath mountains.
[00:43:01] It’s been a really nice way to inspire, to hear from folks about, Hey, how about this idea to connect with people I never would have connected with actually in may. I’ve got a new book coming out with Phil Rundell and one of the world’s desert experts on California desert plants.
[00:43:17] It just went to the printer on Monday. So I’m super stoked to have, to just been able to bridge and find people through this business. And the other strange part. And I’ll end with this about background free press is that Phil Rundle found me because other publishers aren’t doing natural history anymore.
[00:43:34] They’re not doing field guides. They’re not, it’s like this dying. It’s this dying art. Books are difficult in general in these little niche books but they found us because we’re still willing to put our sweat into projects that we think matter.
[00:43:49] Michael Hawk: had a false belief, that field guides were still going strong with so many great releases coming from like Princeton press, for example. But yeah, I’ve since learned that some of the previously prolific publishers and field guides have just exited the business altogether. I love the fact that you’re doing this and you also have adopted a lot of sustainable practices at the same time.
[00:44:10] And and I guess I’m going to have to budget away a little bit more money for some of these books you have in the pipeline.
[00:44:17] Michael Kauffmann: They’re good. They’re good. I firmly believe that they’re important contributions and and they’re also a lot of fun.
[00:44:22] Michael Hawk: And then, still trying to connect people to nature you, conceived of this idea called the big foot trail. Can you tell me what it is and how it was.
[00:44:31] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah. Share. So I’ve been a. Long distance hiker. My whole life I’ve hiked chunks to the Appalachian trail. When I lived in Virginia chunks of the Pacific crest trail, when I lived in Southern California and Northern California. Now I also hike the entire continental divide trail in 2002. I was one of two southbound hikers at the time.
[00:44:51] This is before the big blow up of long trail hikers, which I think is fun and fascinating. But the bottom line was when I hiked the continental divide trail, I saw something like 25 conifer species between Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico. And I wasn’t the best botanist at the time, but .
[00:45:11] that’s what’s in my journal, right about 25 species over 3000 miles.
[00:45:15] It turns out that in the Klamath mountain, On my 360 mile Bigfoot trail, you can see 32 species of conifers. So about a 10th of the walking. And you can see, I don’t know what 125% of the conifers on the continental divide. And they’re not all the same, but you get my, just the number of
[00:45:34] Michael Hawk: And all those other plants that come along with it that you described
[00:45:37] Michael Kauffmann: all the other plans.
[00:45:38] Exactly. Big rivers to cross rugged mountains. So it’s 360 miles. It’s about a hundred thousand feet elevation gain and loss. I wanted to call it the biodiversity trail that it was argued to me that wouldn’t be as catchy. So we called it the big. And I started a non-profit to oversee it. And I’m really excited about this has been, it’s a slow process, but we’ve been able to get out and do a lot of trail work.
[00:46:01] And this is a maintenance that the forest service doesn’t have the capacity for any more, but they help support us and might pack us in. They might provide a little bit of funding for us or tools. But also we have an education component where we get kids out on the trail. We’re developing curriculum about the Klamath mountains getting that into rural communities, kids in these rural communities are doing projects and sharing data on iNaturalist or other platforms between the communities.
[00:46:26] It’s really an exciting bridge to to connect. I think it connects rural communities. It also inspires a love of nature and kicks your butt to walk in, walk in these steep mountains.
[00:46:39] Michael Hawk: Yeah, I I have a friend who’s really into backpacking up in that area. And when I learned of the big foot trail, and this is another one of those things where I finally drew the connection that, oh, this is YouTube because I heard about the big foot trail probably a few years ago. And we started looking at it together one day, pre pandemic in the office and wow.
[00:46:57] Yeah, that would, that’s really a challenging trail that you’ve set up. And I have to ask I’ve always associated Bigfoot with say, Washington, are there legends in California? Does it resonate with people there?
[00:47:12] Michael Kauffmann: When I was eight years, eight or six, I forget that famous picture of big foot emerged, right where the one he’s kind of looking back over his shoulder. That was taken in the Siskey mountains in that. So bluff Creek. So I remember getting one of the Scholastic things where you order the book and I got the big foot book and I remember keying in, on Northern California and thinking, wow, that’s a place I’d love to see.
[00:47:35] So yeah, big foots, the big foot legends here. Now, do I believe in big foot? I wish that I could believe in big foot. There’s just not enough evidence, but that all being said, it’s sure as a fun little twist and uh, I kind of, I think it’s a way to exemplify an, a wildness and in some ways pristine nature of the Klamath mountains.
[00:47:52] Michael Hawk: Yeah. Yeah, it’s fine. It’s again, a nice evocative name. All right. So we’ve hit a lot of topics and all of your books are excellent resources. I already know that from experience, but I am curious if you have any other suggested reading or resources, documentaries, whatever comes to mind for people that would like to learn more either about conifers or the.
[00:48:14] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah, sure. What turned me onto the Klamath. I mentioned, I hiked the continental divide trail. When I ended my hike in Southern New Mexico in silver city. I found the book on the bookshelf of the bed and breakfast. I was staying in called the Klamath knot and that’s by David rains, Wallace and David lives in Berkeley. And he’s written a lot of explorations and natural history for places across the west. But that the.
[00:48:35] Klamath not is probably his most famous book that we’ve sort of the myth of the primordial whole nature of the forests to deep time evolution. And it’s just a fun ride. I really like David’s books.
[00:48:49] I recommend reading the Klamath knot. And then as far as tree books go, I’ll mention conifers of California by Ron Lander. That was a real eye-opener for me. When I first read that one really just looks at the state of California and how amazing the kind of for diversity is, and then Northwest trees by Steven. And this touches on beyond conifers, but it’s a beautiful, and he’s got a new edition out. This was probably originally published in the nineties. All these books actually were published in the nineties, but Northwest trees by Steven RNL. So those are my three recommendations.
[00:49:23] Michael Hawk: Great more threads to pull and and see where it takes us all. And, talking about connecting people with nature. I have this model that I’ve described before that I call the ladder of environmental care and I, I’m always looking at ways to help people move up the ladder to either connect with nature or or go beyond just connecting and actually then protecting.
[00:49:46] So I’m wondering what you found to be most effective in getting people to be able to move up a rung on that proverbial.
[00:49:54] Michael Kauffmann: Wow. That’s a really good question. I’m a life time educator. I’ve taught kindergarten through college and I still do. I buy work in classrooms across Humboldt county. And my top level goal with teachers is to get them and their students asking questions, hopefully getting, even getting them outside.
[00:50:12] I work for save the redwoods league. We’re getting ready to start a bunch of field trips where we’ll take kids to the parks and inspire them. But again, it’s asking questions, figuring out the systematic way to answer those questions. And then pursuing that finding like something passionate about your place.
[00:50:27] And for me, it’s turned into conifers, it’s turned into Manzanita’s, but what is it that you’re passionate about that you need to find out more about? And then how can you share that with other people? So how can we continue to spread the word? And I think. As far as activism and making the world a better place, I think that comes down to the local level and I’m still convinced this is the only way to do it, but maybe it’s joining a trail working crew on weekends to, to clean up whatever, the local trail in your neighborhood, or maybe it’s creating a BioBlitz for a small nonprofit land trust that needs to assess the biodiversity on a new piece of land that they’re protecting.
[00:51:08] Whatever it might be right. But working at the local level to, again, connect people to the natural world is we just need more.
[00:51:15] Michael Hawk: Those are some great ideas and insights. So do you have any other projects that you’d like to highlight?
[00:51:23] Michael Kauffmann: I’ll just mention again, California desert plants may 20, 22. Super excited about that one. The natural history of the Klamath mountains is September, 2022, but we’re also working on a new mushroom book with Christian Schwartz and Noah Siegel again, they couldn’t find a publisher and we’re right there, ready to work with them.
[00:51:41] They did the mushrooms of the Redwood coast. We’re going to do a mushrooms of Cascadia with them. And I haven’t announced this to anyone, but the book should be out by 2023, fall 2023 is our goal. So we’re just excited to continue to do projects field guides, connecting people to the natural world.
[00:52:00] And and That’s where.
[00:52:02] Michael Hawk: That’s super exciting. So yeah, your pipeline of books is even bigger than I realized. if people do want to follow you or your work where should.
[00:52:11] Michael Kauffmann: Yeah, Michael kaufman.net is where I occasionally do blogs, but you can see some of my publications, both research based or just natural history PO book-based stuff. I’m not huge on the social media thing, but I do have the Instagram and the I naturalist, and those are All linked there or just my email contact, right? Shoot me an email if you’ve got a question or an inspiration. So I’m easy to.
[00:52:37] Michael Hawk: All right. I appreciate that. And I appreciate you taking the time today with me to ask some I guess some basic questions, but , you were patient with me. So I appreciate that.
[00:52:49] Michael Kauffmann: Oh, those are, they had some good questions. It made me think a little bit more than maybe my normal Connor for talks. So thanks. Thanks Michael.