Strengthening Resiliency in Sierra Nevada Meadows
Switzer Fellow Doug Johnson (1999), Executive Director of the nonprofit California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC), says he never lets a good crisis go to waste. Right now in California he sees the increasingly severe drought as a chance to educate people about the importance of invasive plant management at the landscape level in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. As the climate warms, invasive species could move into higher elevations, pushing out native plants in meadows that have remained relatively free of invasives up until now.
The work has direct importance for residents of the state: the Sierras are an important source of water for all of California, with snowpack formed in winter melting over the spring and summer months and running down to the dry parts of the state. Meadows play a critical role in holding water for slow release over the course of the year. Invasives, some of which are known to be water hungry compared to competing vegetation, can reduce the capacity of Sierra meadows to perform this valuable function. For the state’s residents and agricultural industry, this could make a bad problem worse.
Johnson says that, incredibly, California eliminated its programs to control the spread of invasive plants in 2010, right at a critical juncture with climate change. Cal-IPC is working to get the programs reinstated. In the meantime, he tries to look at the challenge as an opportunity, a chance to come up with long-term solutions that will work, and to use the drought as a chance to improve residents’ awareness of ecological challenges around them, including invasive plants.
“Sierra meadows are a perfect site to test different strategies for preventing invasives from taking hold in a warming climate. For the most part, invasives aren’t in those meadows yet, so it’s important to act now,” says Johnson.
In the meantime, Cal-IPC uses its CalWeedMapper online decision-support tool (also see article below in Additional Resources) to design priority projects across the state. As Johnson describes it, “CalWeedMapper shows the current distribution of invasive plant species as well as their projected future ranges, and provides the basis for selecting sites and species for control actions.” The Sierra meadows work is supported with two-year project funding from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund.
Johnson admits two years is “a blink of the eye” in terms of invasive species, but he is encouraged by their success in attracting continuing support for the project and others like it.
He says in this line of work there is a "need for fighters and a need for collaborators, and I'm personally wired more as a collaborator.” The field of invasive plant management in particular requires a high degree of collaboration, since effective control of an invasive plant requires coordinated effort by a range of often diverse landowners. Controlling invasives happens “everywhere from urban creeks to working landscapes to wilderness areas,” says Johnson, “and includes a lot of different types of stakeholders. It’s important to get outside of your own bubble and to leverage synergies by partnering with others.”
Says Johnson, “Climate change is happening even if we do a great job of mitigation. We have to also work hard on adaptation, and not just for conservation’s sake. In my work I no longer emphasize the intrinsic value of conservation as the top goal; I’m talking more about the practical need to protect California’s environment and economy. That gives people more ways to understand the importance of this work, and that there are practical things we can and should be doing at the landscape scale.”