Decades of field work add up to a useful tome

November 16, 2004 12:00 am
Charlie Johnson writes notes during a 1998 visit to the North Fork John Day Wilderness, two years after the Sloans Ridge fire swept through the area on the west side of the Elkhorn Mountains. (Baker City Herald file photo).
Charlie Johnson writes notes during a 1998 visit to the North Fork John Day Wilderness, two years after the Sloans Ridge fire swept through the area on the west side of the Elkhorn Mountains. (Baker City Herald file photo).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

You know that frustrating feeling when you find a pretty flower but you can't remember its name?

Charlie Johnson doesn't.

If a flower blooms in Northeastern Oregon, odds are Johnson can recite its common name and its Latin name and probably toss in some obscure detail about its pistils and stamens.

But then he's worked here as a plant ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service for 27 years, so he has no excuse for not knowing an alpine aster from a scabland fleabane.

Read Johnson's new book and you won't have an excuse either.

More than 20 years have elapsed since he started collecting the field data for what became "Alpine and Subalpine Vegetation of the Wallowa, Seven Devils and Blue Mountains."

He finished the 640-page volume just in time, too,

Johnson, 60, will retire at the end of the year.

"I could have retired at 55, but the reason I stayed in was to finish my publications," he said.

"Alpine and Subalpine Vegetation" isn't the first of Johnson's books that the Forest Service has published.

In 1987 he co-authored a guide to plants in the Wallowa Mountains/Snake River area, and in 1992 he helped write a similar guide for the Blue and Ochoco mountains.

In 1993 the Forest Service printed Johnson's "Common Plants of the Inland Pacific Northwest," a volume which, like this latest book, includes color photographs and detailed descriptions of dozens of species. The main difference, he said, is that "Common Plants" covers the region's entire elevation range, from the bottom of Hells Canyon to the tops of peaks in the Wallowas and Elkhorns, whereas his new book focuses exclusively on the high ground.

In 1998 the Forest Service reprinted "Common Plants" and published a new book that chronicles Johnson's decade-long study of how wildfires altered the botanical diversity across the three national forests where he has worked since 1977: the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur.

But this latest volume should be the most useful for readers who like to hike in the high mountains but don't have a doctorate in plant ecology. (Johnson, needless to say, does have one.)

Which is not to say "Alpine and Subalpine Vegetation" lacks the scientific minutiae experts crave.

If you must know the ratio of green fescue to western needlegrass in the Norway Basin of the Wallowas, for example, Johnson's book will bury your brain with data. This torrent of technical information dominates the first half of the new book, which Johnson calls "two books in one."

He said he designed the first section for his Forest Service colleagues and other land managers.

But if you're fascinated by a flower's beauty rather than its vascular structure, you might prefer to flip forward to the second half.

It aims instead at readers who just want to know how to pick out a penstemon from a slope lousy with louseworts.

In fact, most of the second half of Johnson's new book consists of two-page dossiers, including color photographs and black-and-white drawings, for 14 types of trees, 24 shrubs, 29 grasses and 87 forbs (a fancy word for wildflowers) that grow in the high mountains of Northeastern Oregon.

For each species, Johnson lists the sorts of places where you might find the plant. Piper's anemone, for example, is a wildflower that prefers shady spots in Douglas-fir or true fir forests, so if you see a flower in a sunny stand of lodgepole pines, it's probably not a piper's anemone.

And to prevent possible confusion, Johnson lists other flowers which, to the untrained eye, might look like a piper's anemone but actually are something else altogether. Goldthread, for instance, might try to pass itself off as an anemone, but is betrayed by its shinier leaves.

Johnson concludes the particulars for many plants with the aptly named "miscellany" paragraph.

You will learn, for example, that the pale agoseris, which looks a bit like a dandelion that pumps iron, has leaves that if cut exude a milky juice that thickens when exposed to air. Native Americans chewed on the stuff to clean their teeth, Johnson writes.

They also brewed a salve from the leaves of western mugwort, a type of sagebrush, and used it to treat hemorrhoids.

But Johnson's book can do more than sweeten your breath or soothe your posterior.

It might save your life, or at least stave off a stomachache.

Mountain snowberries, though quite pretty, are poisonous, as opposed to huckleberries, whose flavor Johnson describes, in a fit of levity that's conspicuous in such a scholarly volume, with a bit of pointed punctuation and a single word in capital letters: "YUM!"

The first half of "Alpine and Subalpine Vegetation," although a bit more unwieldy for the lay reader than the latter half, explains how Johnson gathered the information required to write the book.

His main goal, he said, was to document the plants that grow in the highest mountains of Northeastern Oregon.

Of course anyone with a camera and a plant guide could do that.

But Johnson goes far beyond the basics, employing his knowledge as a veteran ecologist to also explain why certain species thrive in certain habitats — why, for instance, whitebark pines predominate above 7,500 feet elevation, and why Douglas-firs prefer wetter, cooler slopes than ponderosa pines, but warmer, drier sites than true firs.

The building blocks of Johnson's study are "plots." Plots are small chunks of ground, usually about a tenth of an acre, that Johnson marks with metal stakes.

By establishing plots, Johnson ensured that during the summer field seasons, when he spent weeks hiking through the high country, he studied the exact same strip of forest or meadow that he examined the previous trip to that place, which might have happened a decade earlier.

When Johnson visits a plot he hunkers down, and sometimes even sits, and writes in a notebook the names of each plant he sees, and the percentage of the area each species covers. By comparing his notes from each survey, Johnson can document how the mixture of plants changes over time.

During his nearly three-decade career in Northeastern Oregon Johnson set up approximately 5,000 plots, including 582 that he used to write "Alpine and Subalpine Vegetation."

To ensure a panoramic view, ecologically speaking, he established plots in every type of habitat, ranging from windswept ridges where only low-growing grasses and shrubs can survive, to forest thickets where tamaracks soar 100 feet.