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U.S. Forest Service

Conserving the Botanical Richness of Serpentine Communities

“Barren, infertile, rocky, exposed, and toxic.” With the exception of early botanists roaming the hills of the Klamath-Siskiyous, many who laid their eyes on serpentine landscapes shared this harsh perspective. In the mid-1800s, the only value of these areas was the money to be made in exploiting the minerals and heavy metals that characterize serpentine rock. Practices in those days involved pick and shovel mining, digging deep tunnels, hydraulic mining, and around the turn of the century, explosives. Trees were cleared to provide wood for cabins that housed the miners and their families. Timbers were also used to align the openings of shafts and tunnels, and for construction of mining-related structures.

Over the decades, trees, shrubs, and herbs that slowly made their way onto the disturbed areas now scantly cover some of the scars of historic mining. During the 1970s of the 20th century, exploratory mining in the coastal Klamath-Siskiyou serpentines left in its wake a grid of mining roads, pits, and piles of mine tailings. As a result, serpentine plant communities became fragmented and isolated. This led to changes in pollinator behavior and thus gene flow. Water dependent communities, such as the Darlingtonia wetlands, were deprived of water as poorly designed mining roads intercepted and displaced water elsewhere. Habitat for rare serpentine endemics became even more rare and threatened with extirpation or extinction.


National Forest botanists and other resource specialists have initiated restoration projects to heal past disturbance through the planting of locally collected native plant species. Areas of our National Forests have been designated Botanical Special Interest Areas and Research Natural Areas to conserve the uniqueness and many values of serpentine communities. The North Coast Chapter of the California Native Plant Society maintains plant list for two Botanical Special Interest Areas featuring serpentine communities on the Six Rivers National Forest. Importantly, the public is becoming aware of the extraordinary beauty of these areas and the extraordinary circumstances under which serpentine plant communities exist.

Tailings or spoils of past mining. Tailings or spoils of past mining. Photo courtesy of Six Rivers National Forest.

Cover photograph of The Humboldt Historian (July-August 1993) showing hydraulic mining. Cover photograph The Humboldt Historian (July-August 1993) showing hydraulic mining. Photo courtesy of Humboldt County Historical Society Collection.

  • Botanical Special Interest Areas - The US Forest Service has established a series of Special Interest Areas (SIAs) to conserve unique areas of the National Forests. Botanical SIAs have been specifically designated to conserve and manage unique botanical communities, rare species, or other elements of biological diversity, and to provide for public enjoyment of these areas in a manner that is consistent with the values for which the area was established.
  • Research Natural Areas - Research Natural Areas (RNAs) are a part of a national network of ecological areas designated in perpetuity for non-manipulative research and education, and to maintain biological diversity on National Forest System Lands.

Del Norte willow and Port-Orford cedar along Josephine Creek. Soft, green Del Norte willow (Salix delnortensis), a serpentine endemic, growing with Port-Orford-cedar along the upper tributaries of Josephine Creek, Siskiyou National Forest. Photo by Maureen Jules.

Port-Orford Cedar Conservation

Other challenges to the conservation of serpentine communities are related to illegal cross-country travel, spread of Port-Orford-cedar root disease, and the slow creep of invasive species along roadways leading to serpentine areas. Read more about Port-Orford-cedar Conservation…

Dr. Erik Jules records a GPS reading in a burned Darlingtonia meadow. Dr. Erik Jules records a GPS reading in the L. E. Horton Research Natural Area (Six Rivers National Forest) after the Biscuit Wildfire. Photo by Nate Sanders.

Fire Recovery in Darlingtonia Wetlands

In 2002, a lightning caused wildfire burned through the coastal serpentines of the Klamath-Siskiyous, burning up to 500,000 acres. Where there is fire, there is often the opportunity for research. What happens to the structure of plant communities after a fire? How do species or their abundances change? What other factors are affected that influence plant community recovery? Read more about fire recovery in darlingtonia wetlands…

Dr. Dawn Cardace collecting water samples in a Darlingtonia wetland. Dr. Dawn Cardace collecting water samples in a Darlingtonia wetland to test pH. Photo courtesy of Dr. Dawn Cardace.

Serpentinization and Microbial Processes in Alkaline Seeps and Springs of Ultramafic Rocks

What do Darlingtonia wetlands and outer space have in common? A researcher from NASA is interested in finding out. Dr. Dawn Cardace is investigating the ancient subduction areas of the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains, specifically their serpentine waters, for potential applications for life on other planets. Read more about Dr. Cardace's investigation…

Serpentine Plant Community Viewing Areas



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