Restored gas pipeline right-of-way
in the Great Basin with local native perennial grasses, without
any cheatgrass or weeds. Details
Ecological restoration of non-riparian,
open upland habitats---deserts, alkali sinks or native perennial
grasslands of the West, especially in California, has two major
1.) Weeds---the native grasslands in California have been 99.9% overwhelmed by exotic grasses and weedy forbs from Europe, and the exotics have put weed seed banks into the soil, as dense as 40 per square inch (62,000 per square meter).
2.) Annual Rainfall---there is less than 20 inches (50 cm) of precipitation
in non-forested areas that only falls within six winter and spring
months of the year, and the summer months are completely dry.
CHECKLIST FOR SUCCESS--FIVE SIMPLE PLANS
--PLAN ONE: Selecting Species. It appears to be a simple task--select what species should be on your project site--but decade after decade I've seen the lack of any process to chose the proper species as the cause for more failure than any one single item.
The problem occurs for at least two reasons: There is a natural reaction to use whatever is readily available from seed companies and native plant nurseries and try and make them work on your project. The second error is that no systematic process to determine what originally grew on site, if the natural ecosystems are not present on site today.
The downside of using "off the shelf" material from nurseries or seed companies, is that for native seeds, only 2% of the California's species are available commercially in bulk quantities. Since California contains at least 5,000 native species, and in any single County in the State, there are 1,000-1,800 species of native plants, you must have some procedure to sort out from those thousands of species. Exactly which ones were on your site originally, and then what percentage of each species formed the mosaic of the original ecosystem?
When you have figured out what species and then what percentage of each you need for your site, then you are faced with the second biggest hurtle that creates a large number of failures in California---where can I go for the proper genetic material?
--PLAN TWO: Are sufficient
quantities of local native seeds available?
California with its 5,000 species of native plants, and countless genetic variation within each of those species, called "ecotypes". A sufficient quantity of seed is necessary of both the local species required for the project, as well as the proper local ecotype. Take a look at six genetic variations of one native grass species (Bromus carinatus) occurring within only a 25 mile radius of San Francisco at http://www.ecoseeds.com/common.html
Local seed collection of the native plant ecotypes in sufficient quantities for a project can be conducted in areas where there are still large native stands, but most of California below 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) has had its native understory vegetation 99.99% removed by grazing, farming, housing developments, etc.
If we had started the process of ecological restoration in California 100 years ago, at that time, there were still relict stands of genetic material scattered throughout the State. However, in the 21st Century, the native non-riparian understory plants (native perennial grasses and herbaceous plants--not the trees and shrubs) are nearly wiped out.
That means in order to have a successful
project, a lot of effort must be expended on: (1.) Determining
the proper species (2.) Knowing what the right percentages originally
occurred of each species, and (3.) Where are you going to get
the right genetic material today? Expect to budget a large amount
to cover and resolve these three issues.
The few pounds of seed that could be hand-collected for a project should be immediately turned over to a grower to grow under contract bulk quantities. One pound of hand-harvested native grass seed, if put into commercial cultivation, could yield 100 pounds of commercially-grown seed within 12 months.
The rule of thumb in California is to have 50-100 pounds of native seeds available for each acre that will be restored, so the exotic seedbank already in place can be overwhelmed. Calculate for 50 pounds per acre for pure-live-seed and 100 pounds per acre if it is 50-70% pure seed. Also be sure that the native seeds are weed, noxious weed, and "other crop" free: you want to get a "zero standard" for each of those impurities, which could interfere with your planting.
--PLAN THREE: Successful Test Plots? Decade after decade, large-scale plantings in California fail because successful test plots were not conducted prior to the large-scale planting.
What usually happens, is the large-scale planting IS the test plot, with only one sowing rate or a few different sowing methods. However, our firm recommends the use of dozens of "Tiny Test Plots" , called TTPs, prior to construction.
We recommend trying dozens of TTPs, each of them the size of a few square yards (1-2 square meters), where a broad range of sowing rates, fertilizer rates, mulches, different sowing methods, soil. prep. methods, etc. are tested. Within a very short time, like 60-90 days, it will become very obvious which TTPs have successful results, and then those results can then be used to plant on a larger scale.
We recommend at least two years of test plots, with the anticipation that there will be 90-98% FAILURES in the first series of TTPs, which is to be expected. When the second year of TTPs are planted, the purpose is to make the 2-10% of successes to work better, and achieve close to 100%.
If you do not have time to do on-site test plots, you can always get soil from the site, and set up Ex-situ test plots, in flats, to compare different seeding methods and treatments, and sort out the successful from the failures within a 2-3 months, as the photos show here.
You can create "Construction-mimics" as places to set up your test plots, a couple of years prior to construction. For example, if you are going to put in a new water or gas line, you try and go out a couple of years before the project start date, and dig a trench within the R/W, just like you would do for the project. Then you stockpile the topsoil for a few months, just like you would do for the project, replace it, and then use that area for your test plots.
Think of your tiny test plots, as a test drive of your reveg plan, and if it is successful on a few square meters, it may have a chance on a larger scale. It is also true, that if your plan fails on a few square meters, is it better to fail on a small scale, than for the whole project?
Even in drought years, the rule of thumb is "If the weeds can grow, then you should be able to get a high percentage of native plant cover back in place, with successful test plots"
--PLAN FOUR: Think mosaics instead of seed mixes, and go crazy
California natives should only be sown in your test plots as individual species, and you can try mixes, but in general, a mix of natives does not usually work well. The reason is allelopathy--which means that as each seed germinates, the roots give off natural herbicides to keep other species away. If you look at a natural native plant area in California, like my photos here, you see that the species are growing in a mosaic. The use of seed mixes of natives is probably the number-one cause of planting failures in California.
Go crazy in your test plots. What that means, is that the usual recommended sowing rates for native seeds in California is way too low. So when you set up your small scale test plots, try the usual low rates, and then higher and also some outrageously high rates, and see where you can reach a happy medium.
--PLAN FIVE: Licensed
Technologies and Standards.
Unlicensed technologies have been used for fifty years or more, to try and restore native California grassland habitats. Unlicensed technologies are those available for free, and are in the public domain. However, those technologies have not consistently worked, and they do not have any support system behind them when they fail. Who do you call when those free, public domain technologies don't perform?
Successful technologies must be invented that work for ecological restoration, just like any other industry, and then those successful technologies are licensed for others to use. All the computer software that we all use from Bill Gates or Adobe® are licensed technologies. Why shouldn't ecological restorationists also use licensed technologies, that have standards and technical support?
---STANDARDS---just like when anyone buys any technologies, there is an expectation that standards are attached. Like a new computer, when it runs at a certain speed, with so much RAM, etc.
Ecological restoration absolutely needs performance standards---otherwise mitigation or restoration plans may only remain dreams---wishes that cannot be fulfilled. You can either invent the successful methods through test plots, or license those technologies from others who have already invented them.
--PLAN SIX: Commercially
reproduce your local ecotypes of at least a dozen native seeds
you need for the project.
Expecting to call a seed company and they will have a dozen species available by the pound, of the local ecotypes you need for your project, is a recipe for future disaster. Include in your project, to start FIVE YEARS prior to the project date, to hand harvest local ecotypes of at least a dozen native seeds, and under contract have them commercially reproduced by a seed company who has worked with those species in the past.
Calculate that it takes one pound of hand-collected seed to produce one hundred pounds of commercially grown seed in one year, and the minimum cost for hand harvesting and growing will be $10,000 per species, times 12 species, you are looking at a minimum cost of $120,000 for seed alone. Then when you multiple the number of acres you need to sow by $10,000 for the cost of that seed, you see that the seed costs for any project is going to be a big expense.
--PLAN SEVEN: Mimic the project on a small scale, and see if the natives you want to use, thrive in those soils as-is, and if not, if they need fertilizers, what kind and how much. So many projects in the arid West have failed by not producing a small-scale mimic of the project on site, and testing the seeds and soils to see if there are adequate nutrients for the native seeds to thrive?
All of the Western States have been impacted by 100 years of cattle and sheep grazing, to the point that those animals walked away in their bellies important soil nutrients that today are so low that native seeds cannot survive as seedlings. You can see a picture of this occurring in a project I worked on north of Reno at http://www.ecoseeds.com/good.example.html.
On the left native seeds were sown in soil without any amendments, and the seeds sprouted and died. On the left the proper fertilzers and organic matter was added, and the native grasses thrived. The cost of adding the missing nutrients can be substantial, several thousand dollars per acre in severe cases.
Suggested ecological restoration standard:
STANDARD for WESTERN GRASSLAND HABITAT RESTORATION
"90-90-zero" is the suggested standard for California native grasslands restoration. That means at least 90% local native cover is established within 90 days, with zero future maintenance. Because California only gets 180 days of rain each year in the winter and early spring, that without 90% native cover within the first 90 days, it is unlikely that the next 90 days will be helpful, because the exotics in the seedbank will have overwhelmed the planting by then.
Maintenance generally means failure. Trying to fix a planting with future "maintenance", which usually means "weed control", is a red flag being raised that the initial planting fumbled. Future work on the grassland should only be used to add more native species to the original planting, not for weed control.
It is better to do several years of weed control prior to the project and planting any native seeds. I call that "cleaning the canvas" where you get the construction site weed free including 25 feet outwards from all edges, then when you do the construction and you sow the native seeds afterward, you have less interferance from any weed seeds still in the soils.
When restoring California grassland habitats between 20 feet and 3,000 feet (7-1,000 meters) elevation and between 20" and 30" (50-75 cm) of rainfall, that is where European weeds grow best. The first inch (25 mm) of rain that falls in November, can germinate broadleaf weed seedlings as dense as 20 per sq. inch (31,000 per square meter) and the annual exotic grasses sprout at rates up to 40 seedlings per square inch (62,000 per square meter).
If there were no introduced weeds in California, we could all just dump sacks full of California native seeds out of the back of a pickup truck, and probably have good success. However, when California is covered with hundreds of species of exotics----each releasing thousands of seeds per square meter all over the restoration site----that all those exotics can interfere with any plans to reintroduce California native grassland species.
Add to the costs per acre, when the annual rainfall drops below 20 inches (50 cm), that costs increase exponentially, and those costs should be budgeted. When the annual rainfall is below 10 inches (25 cm), specialized species and ecotypes will be required that can survive in that low range, plus heavy-duty licensed technologies that can succeed in those areas.
Since California native grasslands
species attain a substantial size within six months, test plots
can be used to quickly to measure the value and success of restoration
plans and technologies.
Craig Dremann's "Blue Book of Ecosystem Values" for Non-riparian Ecological Restoration
BUDGETS - The dollars and 1/10th acre-by-1/10th acre approach for success.
Under-funded projects are never are able to accomplish very much. The principle problem occurs when the project wants to skip the test-plot portion, and use the whole project as one gigantic test plot with only one treatment.
In California, add in the lack of rainfall for six months of the year in the summer, and then add to that picture the 200-300 million weeds per acre that germinate in our California soils, and if the money is not budgeted properly, a project may have problems.
Success can be built into a project
if each 1/10th acre of the project is made a separate entity,
and by distributing a budget
in a creative fashion, success can be more likely for the whole
project. The first 1/10th acre is always the most difficult part
of the process, to achieve the standard of 90% local native cover,
and make it stick.
BLUE BOOK Non-Riparian, Upland Ecological Restoration Suggested Budgets, for success:
1.) The minimum amount to budget in 2016 dollars for restoring that first 1/10th acre of non-riparian grasslands that occurs in an area of 20 inches or more of annual precipitation, is $1,000,000. Price includes getting the area three years prior to the test plot work, weed-free and the cost of reproducing 12 local native ecotypes of seed in bulk. The 1/10th acre is the largest "test plot" area to work on, until a high standard of restoration has been achieved, 95% native plant cover or better. The first 1/10th acre costs include labor and materials, which may also include hand-collecting local seed, plus having a portion of that hand-collected seeds commercially grown out to bulk it up.
In the future, a budget
can be slashed if there is a native seedbank still in the soil---see the "Native Seedbank"
2.) If the restoration area is below 20 inches of annual precipitation, add to the cost of that first 1/10th acre, $100,000 for every two inches of annual precipitation less than 20 inches. Bakersfield's six inches of annual rainfall, for example, budget $1,200,000 for the first 1/10th acre. Conversely, for every inch of annual precipitation above 20 annual inches the area receives, the budget could be cut.
3.) Unusual soil types: Budgets should also be increased if the area is in unusual soil types: mines or mine tailings, serpentine, decomposed granite, alkaline or saline, sand, gravel, limestone, etc. Add an additional $200,000 for the first 1/10th acre for unusual soil types, because specialized species and ecotypes will be needed for success in those sites.
4.) If the site is above 3,000 feet elevation: for every 1,500 feet above 3,000 feet, add an additional $100,000 for the first 1/10th acre, because a completely new set of native species will be needed for the planting.
5.) Angle of site: an area that is level is much easier to work on, than a steep road cut that's continually sliding. Add a "slope factor" to the budget--- for every degree from level, double that figure and multiply the budget by that figure as a percentage, and add that to the budget.
6.) Endangered Species Habitat: When working within an Endangered Species or Threatened Species habitat, because one can only delicately manipulate the environment, to not impact the species existing on site, double the budget.
7.) Percentage of native cover on or directly adjacent to the site: can work in your favor, significantly reducing the ultimate cost of the project. Before you do your first test plot, a complete inventory of the area, with a list of both the exotic species and the native understory species, is extremely useful.
8.) Significant top-soil disturbances: Budgets need to be significantly increased if
there has been any removal of topsoil; or removal, stockpiling
and replacement of the top soil layer, like in mining operations
or road cuts.
If the topsoil has been removed, stockpiled and replaced, increase the budget by 50%. If the topsoil has been removed and not replaced, triple the budget.
9.) Human-Introduced Toxins Surcharge: On certain sites, human-introduced toxins may be present: oil and other petroleum products, salt brines, road-salt, salt build-up in agricultural soils, selenium from agricultural drain-water, toxic materials in mine tailings and overburden, etc., that would interfere with establishing plants. A surcharge needs to be added, that would cover the costs of evaluating and mitigating these toxins.
10.) Global Warming/Drought Surcharge:
Consistent annual precipitation
is the key to ecological restoration success, and wild variations
in maximum and minimum temperatures, and rainfall, especially
a trend towards drought, will impact on your project. Native plant
seedling survival require a minimum amount of rainfall. Therefore,
there will have to be an additional
global warming surcharge added to the budget
if maximum or minimum temperatures rise more than 5% over the
1940-1960 averages, or if monthly precipitation drops below normal
for the 1940-1960 average. Check the High
Plains Regional Climate Center data.
Beyond the costs of that first 1/10th acre of restored grassland, cut each additional 1/10th acre's cost in half. If the first 1/10th acre was $1,000,000 -- budget $500,000 for the second 1/10th acre, and $250,000 for the third 1/10th acre, and $125,000 for the third 1/10th acre, and so on.
When the first acre is successfully completed, the local seed materials should then be in sufficient quantity to do a larger area, and efficient techniques developed to get the per-acre price down to a reasonable cost.
You can start with a smaller area to test technologies and gradually ramp them up into larger areas. We like to start with only one square yard for each test plot and get that small area successfully done first. For example, test plots in the San Joaquin Valley in Kern County, even in a drought year with only 3.5" of annual precipitation (as during the 2001-2016 drought), expect greater than 50% plant cover; and of the plant cover present you want to see 95+% living local native plants by April first, measured (as % canopy cover at one foot from ground level) within a belt transect. What that mean is for every $100,000 spent, even in a drought year in Kern County, test plots should have at least 300 square feet that has 95+% local native plants.
Smaller areas can be utilized to prove out restoration technologies before
a huge dollar investment is made.
"NATIVE SEEDBANK = Money in the Bank" When there is a native seedbank in the soils, that seedbank is like money in the bank.! It means that just by managing the exotics, the local native plants can regrow without any seeding or planting. Read how this occurred on 74 acres in Santa Cruz County, in "Releasing the Native Seedbank: An Innovative Approach to Restoring a Coastal California Ecosystem" in ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION, June 2002 (Vol.20, no.2) pages 102-106.
If there is a viable native seedbank, and seeding or planting is not necessary, then
the costs mentioned in the Budget section are slashed to a
fraction of the prices quoted, perhaps down to 1/10 th or less.
To see an example of the quality of native perennial grassland restoration that is possible in the arid West, especially the Great Basin:
Read more about licensed technologies for
ecological restoration in the article
-- "Does the Lack of Patent filings Indicate that
Ecological Restorationists Fail to See Themselves as Inventors
or Innovators?" ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION. (2001) 19:(2)
Contact Craig Dremann, P.O. Box 361 Redwood City, CA 94064 - (650) 325-7333