By Allegra Mount, BRLI Fellow
Stacks of pressed plant specimens are piled on the table in front of me, the only space not taken by newsprint and dried foliage occupied by two large volumes of “The Flora of North America”, a brightly lit dissecting scope and a host of small magnifying lenses and tools that look like they belong in a dentist’s office. I pull out a specimen of Quercus that has yet to be IDed and let out a heavy sigh – with around a dozen species in our region that hybridize readily, they are always a particular challenge. The finicky task is made lighter by the scribble on the side of the newsprint in which the leaves are pressed that reminds me these small tasks are part of a broader and valuable process. It’s a scribble that I wrote on one of those hot and humid days in August that I spent crawling through canyons, wading through grassland, and cutting through spiny brush to find the rock structures that were our final destinations. For the past 3 years scientist Natalie R. Wilson of the USGS Western Geographic Science Center (Tucson) has taken a lucky research assistant (for 2017, that’s me!) out with her to different restoration sites to collect vegetation monitoring data at restoration projects installed by Borderlands Restoration, Stream Dynamics, and Cuenco Los Ojos. It's all a part of a larger effort to understand the effects of water-harvesting structures like one-rock dams and gabbions on arid systems, led by Dr. Laura Norman in her Aridlands Water Harvesting Study (see link at the bottom of this post to learn more).
Each monitoring session involved careful delineation of an axis across the structure, allowing us to recreate almost exactly the orientation and position of a series of plots created using PVC pipe and para-cord. Over multiple monitoring seasons, the change in frequency and density of plant occurences and foliar cover will allow us to ask some questions about the rock structures: what is happening to the vegetative community around the structure? What is happening to annuals and perennials, and to invasive species? So much information can be derived from a simple plot, that while they are beautiful in themselves (see the gallery below), these “nested quadrat” plots therefore took on a sort of elegant simplicity to me.
Most of the land managers whose properties we worked on asked me “What did you find out?” when I came back from monitoring trips, and unfortunately I couldn’t give them an answer beyond general impressions. All of these small pieces of data will come together into a few pieces of paper, densely packed with words describing what we can know when they are all put together. These monitoring trips are the first step in a long process, but unlike other fields that practice science for the sake of science, the analysis rendered from this data will influence on the ground management decisions and future replicable studies.
In this fluorescent lit herbarium on a chilly winter day in Tucson, the lush Monsoon-fed, summer jungles of Madrean grassland and woodlands seem far away, but I know they’re connected by an experimental process that will yield valuable results – and so I return to my Quercus specimens. I’m grateful for the experiences that brought me to this point and for the understanding that all of these small, careful tasks afford us. Thank you to the Borderlands Restoration Leadership Institute Fellowship Program and USGS for affording me these opportunities!
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