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KEXMIN field station: Ongoing Salt Spring Island field research & development of new field courses in landscape ecology

Salt Spring Island mosaic 2014

The work of KEXMIN field station centres on fostering new kinds of conversations spanning traditional Salish knowledge, modern environmental science, and contemporary culture in the hopes of driving new policy, design approaches, and public art. And central to much of this work is a renewed empiricism around ecosystems, species (especially species at risk), indigenous legacies in the landscape (including archaeological sites and contemporary stewardship, harvesting, and leadership protocols) and sea / landscape processes (‘landscape ecology’) in the context of global change especially related to climate and pollution.

Salt Spring Islands, one of the larger of the land masses of the continental archipelago spanning the San Juan and Gulf Islands, is on the northern margins of Oregonia: relatively high latitude, summer-drought often fire-dependent ecosystems under maritime climatic influences that include the erratic ‘Pacific High’. Like the Saanich Peninsula directly to the south, Salt Spring appears to have been colonized by hundreds of Californian in the warm period roughly 4,000 and 5,000 years after the retreat of the ice of the last glacial period. As the decades progress and more field research is conducted, and so far this work has only been in the cursory stages, scores more rare, disjunct, and ‘at risk’ species are being confirmed on Salt Spring. Within the suburbanizing, northern margins of these ecosystems, Salt Spring is a relative refuge for hundreds of species, often associated more with lower latitudes in Oregon and California, with a range of relatively remote land areas and some strategic protected areas. This is much more to learn from these relatively diverse, island ecosystems and shifting landscapes.

I began field work on Salt Spring Island, just eight miles north of where I grew up, in 1979, conducted field research for my MSc thesis in Ecosystem Management, postdoctoral studies through The University of British Columbia, and started teaching field courses in landscape ecology there twenty-five years ago.

So every few years, we find the time for extended field work with this year’s focus on Burgoyne Bay and Mount Maxwell — a biologically rich area, that while largely in protected area status, has seen only cursory biological inventorying and landscape ecology surveying. We hope to continue this field work in coming years as both consulting and teaching and researchers collaborating in the fledgling KEXMIN field station.

As well as renewing baseline work in over ten species at risk, we returned to two indicator species for this complex mosaic of fire-dependent ecosystems spanning shore bluffs, grassland, Garry oak savannah and woodland, and old-growth Douglas fir parkland.

castle & ingram 2014 May 8 Camassia leichtlinii re-establishing in Mt Maxwell ER in the 2009 June 12 - 15 wildfire burn area 1 (small)

Camassia leichtlinii re-establishing half way up the south-west face of Mount Maxwell of Salt Spring Island
In recent decades, the two northern species of camas, Camassia leichtlinii and C. quamash, have been disappearing markedly on Salt Spring Island and other Gulf Islands. Fields of camas were harvested and stewarded by Salish women who have been effectively obstructed from their gardens for more than a century. Similarly, controlled burning based on five millennia of Salish knowledge, and often carefully focused on maintaining sites of camas and other nutritious bulbs, has been outlawed. And sheep grazing, that initially involved Salish engaging in more western agriculture, began in the 1850s and continued until 2001 (even in the original boundaries of the Ecological Reserve) along with a large feral population. And spiking, native deer populations, buoyed by the lack of historical predators and hiking, have grazed remaining the tops of blooming camas bulbs before they have been able to produce seed.

castle & ingram 2014 May 8 Camassia leichtlinii re-establishing in Mt Maxwell ER in the 2009 June 12 - 15 wildfire burn area 2(small)

In this area of Mount Maxwell, where the original Ecological Reserve was established in the early 1970s, Cowichan food gatherers were active and burning until the 1930s. Since then, the Garry oak savannah, the original Salish fields, have grown in to woodland and Douglas fir forest. And in 1980-81, I proposed re-establishment of some controlled burning in this area in a report to the Ecological Reserves Unit of the Province of British Columbia (as part of my M.Sc. thesis in Ecosystem Management).

castle & ingram 2014 May 8 Camassia leichtlinii re-establishing in Mt Maxwell ER in the 2009 June 12 - 15 wildfire burn area 1 (small)

As as the decades have passed, the population of flowering camas on Salt Spring Island have plummeted. Curiously, one of the few signs of any increase in camas populations and ANY reproduction has been seen in the area burned in the June 12 – 15, 2009. What is unclear, after this May 8, 2014 site report, is whether or not there has been an increase in camas throughout the burned areas or just those that saw the application (or more likely lack of application) of fire retardant. Another question is whether or not the seed that was maturing ever became viable or was browsed before.

#1 Pacific dogwood in a rainstorm 2014 May 8 Mt Maxwell Salt Spring Island - castle & ingram #05 (small)

Pacific dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, half-way up the south-west face of Mount Maxwell, Salt Spring Island

At the northern margins of its range, Pacific dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, is a particularly beautiful, and increasingly rare, flowering tree. On the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, ‘dogwood’ is largely confined to the edges of underground streams with year-round moisture but rarely truly riparian. On the south-west face of Mount Maxwell on Salt Spring Island, relatively dry and with soil ph levels relatively higher and less acidic, there is a ‘draw’ that drains a glorious swamp near the top of the mountain (on the summit road about 1 kilometers before the parking lot) and quickly becomes a stream emptying into Burgoyne Bay (about 2 kilometers north along the shore from the Burgoyne public wharf). In 2011, the parcel with lower part of this seasonal stream was finally acquired for protection by Nature Trust and in 2014 was quite drinkable. And going up the stream through the oak meadows this ‘draw’ continues to be full of ‘dogwood’.

#2 Pacific dogwood in a rainstorm 2014 May 8 Mt Maxwell Salt Spring Island - castle & ingram #03(small)

I have been photographing this particular grove of dogwoods, half way up Mount Maxwell, for thirty-five years now. There has been no sign, so far, of the introduced Dogwood anthracnose (dogwood leaf blotch) blights from the introduced fungus Discula destructiva. When finding these trees again, in a violent rainstorm on the 14th of May, 2014, all we had to make photographs were un-smart cellular telephones. But these were the same trees that I photographed decades before with medium-format Rolleiflex and Pentax cameras.

#3 Pacific dogwood in a rainstorm 2014 May 8 Mt Maxwell Salt Spring Island - castle & ingram #01(small)

These photographs were taken in collaboration with Julian Castle. We jointly made these exposures and montages as ‘castle & ingram’.

#4 Pacific dogwood in a rainstorm 2014 May 14 Mt Maxwell Salt Spring Island - castle & ingram #07 (small)