Both natural events and those caused by human activity can cause extreme and far-reaching disturbances to our ecosystems. Mitigation is often required to restore and revegetate natural plant communities if we hope to stabilize them. Recreation has caused an increase in human activity in many areas, increasing the demand for the resources necessary for corrective action.
One of the most basic resources, urgently needed but often in limited supply, is native seed stock. Other than growing the previously collected seed in nurseries, collectors have to go to often remote areas to gather native seed. Most vicinities where they collect seed are on public lands, where permits may take time to process. There have been no negative, long-term effects on stand health caused by responsible seed collecting, but collecting provides a resource that isn’t obtained by other means.
When revegetation projects begin, one of the first things contractors do is visit the site and take note of what vegetation is native to the area, as well as the soil conditions. Each genetically unique ecotype reflects differential adaptation to deviations in soils, climate, and disturbances across the species range of distribution. These adaptations are what make it so important to revegetate using the native seed of the project environment.
Native plants support the soil with either deep tap roots or litter that helps improve organic matter. They provide habitat for pollinators, some with very specific needs. The monarch butterfly, for instance, will visit no other host plant but milkweed; it’s necessary for their larvae to survive. Yet, because it’s regarded as a weed, it’s often sprayed out on the very fields that monarchs could visit. Honey bees are losing their habitat at an alarming rate, in part due to the desire of homeowners, or the requirements of homeowners’ associations, to keep a tidy, manicured lawn.
Land management agencies including the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are working to get ahead of the historical damage, whether caused by humans or by natural fires or floods. With the vast numbers of wildland acres they manage, it seems the appropriate place to revegetate with native seed.
The Old Ridge Route Restoration
An entire genre of music is dedicated to truck drivers and car enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the songs usually end somewhere at the bottom of a very steep mountain road. Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado was made famous this way. California had its flash in the genre with an old song written by Charles Ryan; it starts with a guy leaving San Pedro and heading up Grapevine Hill in his Hot Rod Lincoln.
The Grapevine, however, is actually a reference to Tejon Pass, a steep section of Interstate 5. The Castaic-Tejon Route, called the Ridge Route, was originally a two-lane highway connecting Los Angeles and Kern Counties in California. In 1915, the road opened and was described in the San Francisco Chronicle as “one of the most remarkable engineering feats accomplished by the State Highway Commission.”
“The Old Ridge Route through the Angeles National Forest is a very unique area,” says Ron Dietz, president of Dietz Hydroseeding in Sylmar, CA. “It is in the National Register of Historic Places. It was the first paved road built to connect the central valley of California to the Los Angeles region.”
“Construction started in 1890, and the road was opened in 1915. The original work was mostly done by hand and using horse and wagon. It was paved with concrete between 1917 and 1921. The road runs through the Angeles National Forest, and there are several historical landmarks, including the National Forest Inn, Reservoir Summit, Kelly’s Half Way Inn, Tumble Inn, and Sandberg’s Summit Hotel. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the longest portion of the road, but public access is allowed by foot or bicycle.”
Dietz has been involved in restoring areas of the Angeles National Forest (ANF) for more than 13 years.
The US Forest Service and the Region 5 Ecological Restoration program have goals to restoring the ecological resilience of the national forest lands to achieve sustainable ecosystems. As one of the most critical providers of ecosystem services, their dedication is to sustainable, restoration-based management of these areas. In the Pacific Southwest, there are three primary drivers of change that define their restoration requirements: 1) climate change and a shift in hydrology patterns; 2) increasingly denser and unhealthy forests; and 3) rapidly growing human populations.
The Angeles National Forest area has a Mediterranean climate that includes annual summer drought and high winds that drive frequent wildfires. Large-scale disturbances, both natural and manmade, have put forests at greater risk of loss unless significant restoration efforts are implemented. The predominant fire-adapted chaparral communities that should dominate naturally cannot withstand the increase in fire damage. They are being replaced by annual, nonnative grasses that act like tinder in the forest. Forest managers are countering these trends with crucial restoration programs at an unprecedented rate.
Dietz has recently been working on one such effort. “This project is located in the Angeles National Forest, adjacent to the Old Ridge Route National Monument, north of Castaic and south of Gorman, CA. The areas that were restored are remote, with difficult access and steep and varying terrain,” he says. “The areas had biological surveys for existing plant and animal species prior to start of work. After completion of the installation of the utility line, the sites were regraded and compacted to the original topography, with special consideration of the natural drainage.”
The granite and metamorphic rock in the ANF are usually considered to be almost impervious, but due to fractures deep in the rock, they have the capacity for a considerable amount of temporary water storage. Stream flows range from minimal to high volumes, depending upon precipitation, and intense rainstorms often loosen rocks, vegetation, and shallow mineral soils. Many of these streams are seasonal and dry up for months at a time or are nonexistent during drought years.
“Special care was taken on all sites to limit impact to existing plants and animals. There were onsite biologists to monitor plant and animal impact. Animal species on the site were reported and observed. Snakes would be moved if necessary to protect the snakes and our crew,” says Dietz. “Animals were not to be disturbed, and work would be halted if necessary, especially for any endangered species such as California condor. During bird nesting season, equipment left on the site had to be covered with netting and inspected each day. If nests were made on the equipment and eggs present, the equipment could not be used or moved until the nests were empty.”
He adds, “There were also onsite archaeologists to monitor vehicle traffic and access to the sites. There are many significant archaeological sites, Native American sites, and sites from the construction of the Old Ridge Route that are protected.”
Evidence suggests that Gabrielino, Fernandeno, Tataviam, Ventureno Chumash, Kitanemuk, Serrano, and possibly Vangume and Kawaiish tribes were present in history and prehistory.
Water on the Mountains
Vegetative cover not only provides shade to the soil but also, by way of root penetration and surface litter, controls erosion and runoff. Runoff, drainage, erosion, and even the direction of sunlight all influence soil formation. Slopes through the San Gabriel Mountains are steep, with many areas having a 60% or greater slope.
“In May of 2016, an area of erosion was noticed after a very heavy rainfall season,” says Dietz. “The area was located on very steep (1:1) and very long (800-foot) slope. Because of offsite water flow onto the project footprint, there were erosion rills created down the slope. We needed to repair the wattles that had overflowed and repair and fill the rills. We also needed to create temporary water diversions to redirect the offsite water flow back to the natural drainage areas.
“The site had significant germination and growth of the seeded plant material. Additionally, there was little to no onsite soil to use for soil bags to create the diversions and fill the rills. Soil, if it could be found in the ANF, would have to be brought by truck to the base of the slope. It would require tractors or a very large crew to fill the bags and bring them up the 800-foot slope. This was not an option because of the heavy impact to the growing plants and the integrity of the repaired slope.”
“We were able to do the repairs using EC Fiber Bags. We used materials preapproved by the National Forest Service, and our hydroseeding equipment and crews. We were able to create the water diversions, create check dams in the rills, and repair the wattles along the entire slope. We were able to perform the work with a small crew—six people—and insignificant impact to the site. We then hand-seeded and hydromulched the areas that were impacted. The resulting repairs have successfully eliminated the offsite water flow and erosion on this site, allowing the plants to fully restore the area.”
Supplies including native seed, approved wood fiber, Ecology Control M-Binder, and Terra-Mulch from Profile Products were provided by S&S Seeds, a supplier of native seed and restoration supplies in Carpinteria, CA.
The Geology Challenge
Sharp, narrow crevices in the rocks indicate the earthquake activity in the past and that continues to uplift the mountains. Soils in areas with steep slopes and granite geology tend toward heavier erosion unless covered with a great amount of vegetation. These areas are unstable, with the colluvial soils being noncohesive. It takes only a minor disturbance to coax the soil downhill.
“First, the location is remote and mountainous,” notes Dietz. “Equipment could only access it via narrow dirt roads. Once the equipment arrived at the various staging points, the restoration areas were still very long with steep slopes and elevation changes. All water for hydroseeding had to be transported from Castaic, up steep grades with specialized vehicles to access the sites. Weight limits and cleaning of equipment required the water to be transferred to onsite, all-wheel-drive, 3,000-gallon water trucks.”
“Safety was the highest priority. All of our crew members participated in a project-specific safety training program, along with daily safety meetings. Besides the regular hazards of our equipment and work, the site had unique hazards and safety concerns,” he says.
“Rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bobcats, insects, and poisonous plants are all indigenous to the area. We trained our crews for these and other potential hazards, and special first aid products were provided. Because the areas were so remote, phone availability was poor to nonexistent, and the nearest emergency facilities were an hour or more away once we returned to our vehicles.
“Fire was another danger. All vehicles had fire extinguishers, shovels, and fire axes. We always had extra water for fire protection at the staging areas where we had motorized equipment. In the event of fire, escape routes are limited to a few small, narrow roads. The project would be shut down and no work performed during red flag or high-fire-danger days.”
He adds, “Winter months created other issues. If rain started, trucks and equipment could not safely drive on the muddy roads. We also had snow one week, and our hydroseeding hoses were clogged by ice.”
Getting the Job Done
“No amendments or fertilizers were used on this project,” says Dietz. “After the final grading, the topsoil was decompacted and scarified and BMPs installed. The site is very environmentally sensitive. No outside soils are allowed to be brought into the ANF. Any other materials must be tested for contaminants or weeds and approved prior to being used or brought into the forest. All materials used had to be biodegradable, including the hydromulch fiber and soil stabilizer for hydroseeding, as well as the burlap bags and burlap-covered, weed-free wattles. All equipment had to be inspected every time it was brought onto the site. All vehicles and hand tools had to be certified that they were washed and the undercarriages cleaned to ensure that no non-indigenous seeds were transported into the forest.”
Seeding the Site
“Seeding was performed in a two-step application,” he says. “The individual seeds were hand-seeded over the recently scarified, rough soil surface. After hand-seeding, the seeded areas were hydromulched with wood fiber and Ecology Control’s M-Binder slurry. The sites required the use of up to 2,400 feet of hose. We used Bowie Imperial 3000 hydroseeding machines mounted on specialized Peterbilt trucks. Multiple machines with special high-pressure pumping systems set up in tandem were required to hydromulch through the length of hose and to compensate for the variations and increases in the elevation.
“The [seed] mixes were varied slightly based upon the individual restoration locations due to elevation, soils types, and seed availability. The seeds were all local native species, contract-collected from the immediate area in the ANF; multiple seed suppliers were used. The seed types used were formulated based upon the initial plant surveys and approved by the National Forest Service. The goal was to restore the habitat to its original condition as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
“Specific to the Angeles National Forest project that Ron referred to, the seed was collected from a defined geography within the ANF,” notes Ben Miller of S&S Seeds. “We collected, cleaned, conditioned, and stored the seed until near the end of the project when it was appropriate to seed.”
The seed mix that was used included flowery herbs, sunflowers commonly known as rubber rabbitbrush, California buckwheat, and other native California species.
Pollinator-Friendly Solar Arrays
Almost as soon as the State of Maryland passed legislation on bee-friendly solar sites in 2017, the first facility of its kind was producing electricity.
“In 2017, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to support pollinator-friendly solar sites by creating specific standards and designation of such sites by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. I was proud to vote in favor of Senate Bill 1158 and to see the addition of a pollinator-friendly solar site to my legislative district,” says Maryland State Senator Michael Hough.
“During the construction of this project, more than 100 local people were employed to complete the Baker Point solar farm,” he says. “This project will provide more than $2 million in revenue to local taxing districts in Frederick County over the life of the project. Ultimately, this will help to build Frederick County schools, fire departments, and road improvements and fund other important county services.”
Cypress Creek Renewables, the National Geographic Society, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, OneEnergy Renewables, and WGL Energy all came together in November 2017 to unveil the first solar array inspired by the legislation. Construction on the project began in early June 2017, and the facility began producing power in October 2017.
Benefits of Solar Energy Credits
Cypress Creek Renewables estimates that the Baker Point solar site in Frederick County will produce enough electricity annually to provide power to more than 2,000 homes. Through a long-term contract with WGL Energy Services Inc, National Geographic, and Monumental Sports (acting for Capital One Arena in Washington, DC) will buy the electricity produced by the project, matched with national solar renewable energy credits.
“Energy credits are created to generate a market for renewables,” explains David Wagner, the project manager and an EPC- and NABCEP-certified PV installation professional with Cypress Creek Renewables. “It’s all based on production. They’re called SRECS, or solar renewable energy certificates.”
When a solar generator produces a megawatt hour of electricity, one SREC is created. But the SRECs are sold separately from the electricity produced. Basically, customers with solar arrays—whether large as at Baker Point or small such as a solar array on an individual homeowner’s roof—can use their electricity produced onsite and can sell any extra energy, in the form of SRECs, to buyers—usually the utility companies.
For the Eaves family farm, with more than 7,000 acres of land, the Baker Point solar farm lease provides not only pollinator-friendly solar energy, but also future security for the family.
The Baker Point solar farm includes 34,074 solar modules located in Thurmont, MD, on the Old Frederick Road. Nine different species of native long-stemmed, short-growing flowers and warm-season grasses were planted at the site to attract honey bees and butterflies.
“There are about four acres around the perimeter of the project near the fence that we designated as pollinator habitat, and that is where we planted the seed mix,” explains Wagner. “We did not plant any live plants in the pollinator habitat area, but we did plant shrubs and young trees around the perimeter of the entire project, outside the fence. There were about four acres in the middle of the project that were designated wetlands, and we isolated the area during construction for protection. After construction, we planted saplings throughout the area as required by Frederick County for forest conservation.”
Honey Bees in Heaven
The unusual feature of this solar farm is that in addition to producing renewable energy, the site maintains honey-producing hives on the premises. Each hive will produce on average 30 pounds of honey each season. Although honey bees are not in danger of becoming extinct, of the 412 species of wild bees, 53 species are experiencing population decline, 42 species are considered to be vulnerable, and one species has been placed on the Endangered Species List. Agriculture’s economy is dependent on bees for many crops including pumpkins, apples, berries, beans, and alfalfa—which is a primary feed for the dairy industry.
Kirsten Traynor, a beekeeper and USDA NIFA-ELI post-doctoral fellow at the University of Maryland, will be tending the hives at Baker Point. Traynor, also editor of Bee World, published by the International Bee Research Association, studies honey bee health and nutrition. “Pollinators like honey bees provide every third bite we eat, but are often starved in our fragmented landscape. Last year alone, our state lost 55% of its honey bee colonies,” she notes.
“Honey bees are managed by their beekeepers and are not in danger of going extinct,” she says. “However, the United States has over 4,000 species of native bees. We’re losing them at an alarming rate. Ideally, utility companies, both solar and traditional, would plant extra forage on all the land they maintained, providing important food sources for the pollinators that feed us.”
Traynor is enthusiastic about the pollinator-friendly solar farm at Baker Point, but she is still dubious. “Most solar farm pollinator plantings are small and are the proverbial drop in the bucket,” she says. “The solar farm pollinator plantings are a step in the right direction, providing additional food resources. But what we really need is for every homeowner and all municipalities to realize that an immaculate lawn is a food desert. We need to allow clover and other flowering plants to thrive, so our pollinators and other beneficial insects don’t disappear.”
Build It—They Will Come
Jamie Burdette of Red Rock Farm in Thurmont contracted for the construction and landscaping at Baker Point. One of the first things his crews did, he says, was to put up super silt fence around the wetland perimeter to isolate it. The geotextile fabric and chain link fencing together give an added degree of strength. They didn’t have to do much to prepare a seed bed, he adds.
“We pulled a high-speed disc on the back of a 300-horsepower tractor. It doesn’t tear up the ground so much,” he says. “We made one pass and then seeded using a 160-horsepower New Holland tractor that holds up to two tons of seed.”
Soils in Thurmont are predominantly red clay with small pockets of sandy loam, and erosion is a big challenge. “The ground was so wet; it just kept plugging everything up. But we put some pelleted lime down, and an approved fertilizer,” he notes. “After all the construction, we reseeded and blew straw down to protect the seed and hold in the moisture.”
Wagner explains that, in addition to silt fence and other BMPs, crews put down a good cover crop of barley when they were prepping the site. “The landowners also got a free (volunteer) harvest of buckwheat in the last few days. They were great people to work with, both as landowners and as people in general.”
Seeding the Pollinator Habitat
Due to the timeline of seed harvests and preparation, Wagner says, crews were not able to use some of the native seed recommended, but they still planted a good variety of pollinator-friendly species. “We chose this seed mix as a recommendation by Ernst, taking into account the soil conditions and the location of the project in Maryland.”
Greg Kedzierski, plant materials specialist with Ernst Conservation Seeds, explains that although the seed is collected onsite, native seed is still tagged with pertinent information such as mix name or number, supplier’s name, and a breakdown of species and their percentages in the mix. Additional information provided by the seed lab would include where the specific lot came from, its germination and purity, percent weed seed, and other information provided by the collector.
Following Frederick County requirements, Burdette says, crews planted 2,200 cedar and other tree and bush saplings throughout the site. The native seed mix included lots of sunflower species, prairie grasses, and milkweed (necessary for monarch habitat).
Pollinator-Friendly Solar Research
Cypress Creek Renewables, a leader nationally for solar development, currently has a three-year, $100,000 partnership with Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to study the ecological and economic benefits of pollinator-friendly solar farms in New York. It’s estimated that honey bees contribute $500 million to New York’s agricultural economy. The research seeks to determine whether planting wildflowers on solar sites encourages populations of threatened bees. It will also look at whether the wildflower plantings on solar farms boost the bees’ visitation to other crops, resulting in a greater yield of pollination-dependent crops and economic benefits to growers.