Thursday, December 22, 2011

Floristic Inventory of the White River National Forest and Vicinity

Graduate Student, UW Botany Department

Unlike some of my colleagues, I wasn't born with a lens in hand.  I stumbled into botany en route, I thought, to a career in wildlife management and a desire to work with wolves.  As with many aspects of nature, learning about one leads to deeper, unexpected questions about the whole, and during a volunteer experience at a wolf sanctuary in Colorado I "discovered" my interest in plants.

Ron Hartman and Josh Irwin in the
Colorado River Valley, Mesa County
Subsequently, I've been able to develop my skills and interests in botany through several seasons of work with the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service.  As I became more involved in field botany, and the itinerant lifestyle it requires, I developed a nagging feeling that my work with rare plants was just scratching the surface.  I got to know a select number of taxa particularly well, but I was mostly ignorant when it came to the rest of plant biodiversity.  I also felt that I didn't have a framework to help me make sense of what I was seeing from place-to-place and year-to-year.

These concerns, coupled with fortuitous mentoring by former graduates of the Hartman lab (Brian Elliott, Walt Fertig and Laura Welp-Fertig), set me on my current path.  I can honestly say I've found in Ron Hartman's program exactly what I was seeking those many years, and more.

Over the past two summers, I and other collaborators, including Ron Hartman, Ernie Nelson, and Lori Brummer, have collected over 11,400 specimens from the White River NF and adjacent lands south of the Colorado River.  My study area comprises about 4,200 mi2 in northwest Colorado.  It is located on the west slope of the Rocky Mountains, spanning from the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau to the Continental Divide, and includes all or part of Summit, Pitkin, Eagle, Mesa, Garfield and Gunnison counties.  It comprises a fascinating geological cross section of Colorado, beginning in the mesa country to the west and passing eastward, and upward, through the Precambrian uplifts that comprise the Elk, Sawatch, Gore, and Front Ranges.

Hiking the Continental Divide through Summit County
Geologic, topographic, and substrate diversities provide a multitude of habitats, ranging from steppes and shrublands to alpine meadows, from rock faces and talus slopes to fens and riparian corridors.  Habitat diversity contributes to great plant diversity, including numerous local and regional endemics.

During the summer of 2010, I found over 50 taxa tracked by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, and many more "rare" species will be tallied before I’m done.  With about one third of my specimens identified, I've counted well over 600 unique taxa representing about 60 vascular plant families.

Over the coming year I’m looking forward to finding out what other surprises await in the 30 or more boxes of specimens remaining.  This curiosity keeps me coming back to the microscope day after day with renewed interest.  Some people read mystery novels; I look forward to the mysteries locked up (for now) inside my plant specimens and what they can tell me (and us) about one small corner of the natural world.

This winter promises to be busy and exciting, watching snow quietly descend over the UW campus while working through my backlog of plant collections, each specimen a unique answer to a complex question of nature.

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