Sunday, July 22, 2012

Eden Valley Balds

"Islands in the sky" is a term applied to the isolated habitats along the mountain top ridges of the Basin and Range of most of Nevada with some adjoining portions of other states. In Washington State there is a similar "island in the sky" habitats on the scattered balds at isolated locations separated by miles of forest land versus the miles of sage and salt brush in the Basin and Range. 

Bald area on ridge above Eden Valley

Eden Valley is a valley tucked between ridges on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula west of Port Angeles. I recently ventured into Eden Valley to access a project site. On a sunny day it was very nice and Eden-like. I had a view of one the Eden Valley Balds along the ridge top on the northwest side of the valley as I headed up the valley. These balds provide unique habitat far different than the vast majority of the more typical forested western Washington landscape. Balds are fairly common on the San Juan Islands (balds-praise-for-favorite-washington). But elsewhere such as the Olympic Peninsula balds are more scattered and isolated. In that regard they are rarer and the habitat more critical.

These isolated open areas provide habitat to very specific plants and animals. But unlike the island in the sky areas of Nevada, balds in western Washington are a bit ephemeral. Over time the bald pictured above may be covered by evergreen trees. But the thin soils combined with the location on a ridge allow for the site to be a bit dried out. An occasional, every hundred years or so, a lightning strike may have kept this ridge top tree free. If one looks closely, some of the scattered trees on the ridge are twice as tall as most of the other trees. The tall trees are the survivors of past fires or other disturbances.

These balds are actively being studied as they provide habitat for several rare plant and animal species such as checkerspot butterflies. How to manage these areas is a challenge given the lack of tolerance for wild fires in a commercial forest area or in an area with scattered rural homes. In addition to fire suppression, invasive non native plants that do do perform the same habitat functions can also invade these open areas.

Washington State Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Department of Natural Resources as well as non government organizations have been evaluating different approaches to managing these areas. To some extent these areas are attractive for preservation as the harshness of the environment that causes the balds is not conducive to growing valuable trees. 

Another bald on the Olympic Peninsula

My own ventures took me through a mix of timber stands and I enjoyed a snack or red huckleberries within a clear cut before pushing though a stand of 20 year old Douglas fir. The ridge top, however, as can be seen above had tree free areas. The ridge was cliffy and underlain by siltstone and conglomerate bedrock. A review of aerial photographs showed that it burned in the 1980s. This burn area is one of the ephemeral balds on the Olympic Peninsula.

Traversing across the open slopes I had great bedrock exposures - rare treat in this area. I also had some very tasty strawberries. With this year being a bit on the damp side, there is a low risk of fire in this location; however, I noted lots of dry woody material and drought tolerant plants including madrone trees as I neared the ridge crest.

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