Monday, March 18, 2019

Harbingers of Spring at the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern

It used to be a "junk" landscape...the kind of place where locals dumped their garbage and shot up old cars. Off-road vehicles ran roughshod over the relatively barren slopes. It wasn't private property. It was owned by the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management, whose original goal was to give the land away, but in the end no one wanted it. The land, with poor soils nearly useless for agriculture, languished.
But times and attitudes change. There was a reason for the poor nutrient levels in the soils, and why grass, that would have at least allowed for grazing, failed to thrive. The underlying bedrock was composed of ultramafic rocks like serpentine, dunite and peridotite. The rocks are rich in iron and magnesium, with significant amounts of toxic elements like nickel or chrome. Only the hardiest of plants can tolerate these chemical conditions, although there are a few that can thrive in this harsh environment. When the ultramafic rocks are weathered, the iron is released to react with oxygen in the atmosphere to form natural rust minerals like hematite and limonite. The brightly colored soils earned the locality its name, the Red Hills. They form the ridges west of Chinese Camp in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode between Highways 108 and 132.
By the 1990s public efforts to protect and preserve the unique biology and geology of the region succeeded when the BLM declared 7,100 acres of the region (about 11 square miles) an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Trash and garbage were removed, trails were laid out, and a parking area constructed. Regulations limited off-road use and target shooting. The region finally received the recognition it needed.
The "park" includes seven very rare species of plants, including two endemics, species found nowhere else in the world (the Red Hills Vervain, and the Red Hills Ragwort). The unique nature of the flora is immediately apparent when approaching the area from the west. The environment of scattered oaks and widespread grasslands gives way abruptly to Buckbrush and Gray Pines. Grass is practically non-existent, unable to thrive on the poor soils. The region has a decidedly barren look.
But then the rains arrive. In the late winter and early spring, the wildflowers burst forth in a display of bright colors. Wildflowers in other parts of the Mother Lode are often hidden by the high-growing grasses. With grass a much diminished species, the wildflowers blaze forth.
We went up into the Red Hills today to see how things have progressed now that we've had a wet year. It's a bit early, but a fair number of flowers were visible on the slopes, including Monkey Flower, Golden Poppy, Brodiaea, and Five-spot. The lichens provided even more color.
The intermittent creek running along the main road through the park sported a healthy flow of water allowing us a chance to see the other unique species in the ACEC: the Red Hills Roach (Lavinia symmetricus), which is a fish, not a bug.
The Red Hills Roach is a subspecies of the California Roach, a member of the minnow family. It's only found in a few drainages within the ACEC and nowhere else in the world. The streams run dry for much of the year, but small seeps and springs maintain permanent pools where a few fish can survive. There were serious concerns about whether the fish would be able to survive the horrific drought of the last decade, but they managed as they have through time.
I got a poor picture of one of the roaches, but a teaching colleague of mine, Ryan Hollister, has posted some underwater shots of the fish on the move.

The Red Hills are wet from months of above-average rainfall, and the plants are growing fast, and will be blooming in profusion in the next few weeks. If you can spare a moment, head into the hills and give the ACEC a chance to impress. It is a truly unique environment found nowhere else in the world.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gary,
I'm planning on making a trip here in a couple of weeks. Can you recommend a place to camp?
I've been really enjoying your blog and just discovered you have another based on birds -- love that, too!

Garry Hayes said...

There are campgrounds at Turlock Lake State Recreation Area (about 15-18 miles away), or a bit farther away at Horseshoe Bend Recreation area on Lake MaClure on Highway 132 towards Coulterville, a bit farther away. There are probably RV parks a bit closer in Jamestown maybe, but I am not familiar with any of them.

Nephi Polder said...

Garry, is there any particular reason the ultramafic rocks are exposed here and almost nowhere else in the vicinity?

Garry Hayes said...

There are ultramafic rocks all up and down the Mother Lode, but few are as wide as the rocks near the Red Hills.